Megan McDonough is a weddings and obituary writer for The Washington Post.
When Tupperware — the now-ubiquitous plastic-container brand — first hit retail stores in 1945, it sat on the shelves gathering dust. The new kitchen helpmate needed to be demonstrated and explained to consumers.
“The product itself was revolutionary,” Bob Kealing writes in “Life of the Party.” “Now it just needed someone equally innovative to figure out how to sell it.”
Enter Brownie Wise, the trailblazing entrepreneur and executive whose marketing genius and sales method of targeting women transformed Tupperware into the international, billion-dollar business it is today.
Kealing’s book, originally released under the title “Tupperware, Unsealed” in 2008, has been revamped to feature Wise even more prominently alongside Tupperware founder and inventor Earl Silas Tupper. Exhaustively researched and skillfully detailed, Kealing’s thorough and engrossing account chronicles the pair’s unlikely, dynamic and often tumultuous relationship, and Wise’s meteoric rise and subsequent precipitous fall from grace within the company she made a success.
Kealing aptly describes how, before becoming the face and force behind Tupperware, Wise, a divorcee and struggling single mom, worked as an executive secretary in Detroit and sold Stanley Home Products — mops, cleaners, detergents — to supplement her income. Although she would eventually become a sales leader at Stanley, she was admonished by her mentor, the company’s founder, that management wasn’t a place for women.
Wise then discovered Tupperware and realized firsthand the importance of hands-on home demonstrations to effectively promote the product when she accidentally bumped a Tupperware bowl to the floor: It bounced and did not break. Right away, she realized its durability as a key feature of its marketability.
She had found her niche. Capitalizing on her experience at Stanley, she began buying and selling Tupperware independently. She ingeniously recruited suburban housewives to sell the product at large gatherings of friends, relatives and neighbors in their homes, which soon became social events.
In turn, they received merchandise, a share of the proceeds and personal recognition. Her motto? “Build the people, and they’ll build the business.”
The growth was immediate and explosive: Within her first year of selling independently, her team garnered more than $85,000 in Tupperware orders (close to $850,000 today), outselling department stores across the country.
Tupper, noticing her remarkable sales, saw an opportunity and astutely pulled Tupperware off store shelves. He pivoted the company’s strategy to capitalize on Wise’s home parties and promoted her to general sales manager.
By the mid-1950s, Tupperware was employing more than 10,000 people, mostly women. Selling Tupperware gave homemakers an opportunity to work and excel outside the traditional domestic sphere. “Tupperware executives had the shrewd notion — untried in any organization before them — that women would power the engine of this home-selling revolution,” Kealing writes. “And they did.”
By 1958, the company had hit $10 million in sales (more than $80 million in 2016 dollars). Tupperware and Wise were quickly becoming household names. Wise was also becoming a PR maven, planning buzz-worthy events such as the company’s annual Homecoming Jubilees. The four-day events, designed for Tupperware’s national top earners, were famously enormous, extravagant and elaborate, filled with classes, motivational speakers and more than $75,000 in prizes.
In 1954, Wise was the first woman to grace the cover of Business Week. The story dubbed her a “Prophet in Plastic.” As Kealing writes, “She showed others like her a golden road to a better life paved through suburban America.”
But Tupper’s displeasure with Wise’s self-promotion caused their relationship, once collaborative and congenial, to sour. Don Hinton, a former Tupperware advertising executive, explained that Tupper “was jealous of her because she was the queen of Tupperware and he was nothing.”
This, coupled with a series of missteps that Kealing recounts, led to her ouster from the company she effectively built. In 1958, she was abruptly fired and tossed aside like last week’s leftovers, with no stock, only a year’s salary (almost $35,000 today) and a noncompete contract, while Tupper left the business just a year later with $16 million.
In 1992, Wise died at the age of 79 in Kissimmee, Fla., relatively unknown and uncelebrated. Yet her profound impact on the company and its iconic American product is still evident, with home parties continuing as Tupperware’s main marketing strategy. Her sales techniques also paved the way for other successful big-name companies, such as Mary Kay and Avon.
Kealing’s book is a much-deserved tribute to Wise, shedding light on the life and legacy of this groundbreaking, formidable and visionary woman.
By Bob Kealing
298 pp. $26