Brownie Wise – The Tupperware Party Starter

Words: Robyn Samuels

After 75 years, Tupperware parties have been called off as the business may close its doors.

In recent weeks, Tupperware has been on radars due to claims that the company is under siege. Besides being an iconic brand, Tupperware has been a life force for many women and salespersons, offering them an opportunity to earn an income and support their families – largely owing to the efforts of one sensible woman named Brownie Wise. And while Tupperware may be judged for its outdated sales strategies and inability to resonate with younger audiences, you can’t deny the power of the woman who started the party. Like many other women, Brownie rose above adversity and made ends meet by selling Tupperware.

Image: Brownie Wise Papers, 1938-1968, National Museum of American History

Rivalled by AMC Cookware and Avon cosmetics saleswomen, Tupperware gangs were a force to be reckoned with! As a youngster, I remember tagging along with my mother to Tupperware parties. One of the few girlies among a sea of aunties, my brown cheeks were pinched till they were scarlet – a small sacrifice in exchange for a seat at the table.

Here, tea was spilt and sipped, and top-of-the-range Tupperware was auctioned and demonstrated – all thanks to Brownie Wise, the iconic American saleswoman that revolutionised the hostess party plan; she facilitated women’s careers in the post-war baby boom era and gave them a purpose beyond being mothers and housewives. But how did the iconic household brand seal the lid on sales?

The Tupperware Effect

Tupperware parties seemed like a sound business plan, a strategy many companies adopted in the early days of direct-to-consumer marketing. The micro-influencers of their time, these ladies sustained families with this source of income while paving the way for the business, which went on to become one of the biggest commercial brands of its time.

Image: Brownie Wise Papers, 1938-1968, National Museum of American History

But as of March 2022, the brand has seen a slump in its labour force, which has decreased by 18% within the past year. In addition to this, the company’s shares have decreased drastically, partially owing to Covid lockdowns – a harsh impact for many brands. But the main reason this brand might close its doors if they don’t regain sales, is the very reason the brand skyrocketed – Tupperware parties.

Another contribution to the brand’s decline in popularity and sales, is the fact that cheaper products are available and purchasing doesn’t involve contacting a consultant.

Started by American chemist, Earl Tupper, in 1946, Tupperware was marketed as a storage solution to make food stay fresher for longer. Before then, rumour has it that women used shower caps to cover food containers. In early 1940, refrigerators became popular and by 1944, apparently 85% of American households had refrigerators. Without proper food storage, last night’s tuna casserole would be stale and spoilt by the morning.

Tupper’s genius invention solved this problem. But the air-tight containers, which were modelled after paint lid seals, confused the public as they didn’t quite understand the mechanism behind the products. It was then that the ‘Tupperware Effect’ was adopted…

Image: Tupperware U.S. & Canada Facebook, Vintage Collection 2022

Along with the help and leadership of Brownie Wise, the unbreakable containers shattered the market and created jobs for women post-World War II. Wise, who was a single mom after having divorced her abusive husband, first worked for Stanley Home Products before working for Tupperware as a salesperson.

With an impressive resumé, having worked as a columnist for The Detroit News, under the pseudonym ‘Hibiscus’; executive secretary for an air crafting manufacturing company, and briefly at an ad agency, Wise trailblazed her way to the top and built a name for herself.

Women in the Workforce

Wise once said, “If we build the people, they’ll build the business”. In 1948, the first Tupperware Party was held – this soon became the modus operandi for national distribution and life in plastic was fantastic.

By 1950, Tupperware parties grew significantly. The brand helped women (and men) establish careers as salespersons, thus earning an income and offering some women a means to socialise – a narrative previously banned by reinforced gender inequalities.

Tupperware ads 1960s

Left: Tupperware ad, 1960, magazine unknown, source: | Right: Tupperware ad, 1960s – National Museum of American History, Behring Center

During the war, an amended law allowed women into the workforce, but after the war ended, women were expected to return to old ways. Eventually, men returned to the workplace, while women took care of the kids and handled domestic responsibilities.

*It’s estimated that between 35 and 60 million people died during the war. When soldiers returned home, marriage and birth rates increased exponentially – apparently 76 million babies were birthed during the baby boom era (1946-1964).

Brownie – the Face of Tupperware

Brownie was all the wiser – when her son Jerry became ill in 1949, she decided to move to Miami where she worked for Stanley Home Products, and distributed Tupperware products, along with her mother. On a mission to make ends meet, Brownie became the top consultant and dominated the South Florida region.

Earl Tupper caught wind of this and since he hadn’t found a retailer to sell his products, as department store sales didn’t take off due to consumer scepticism, Tupper was sold on the ‘Tupperware Effect’ and the products were exclusively sold at home parties.

Image: Brownie Wise Papers, 1938-1968, National Museum of American History

Earl joined forces with Norman Squires, who originally ideated the Hostess Home Party or ‘the party plan’. In 1951, Earl asked Brownie to head up the party plan.

Because Brownie was making fantastic sales, Tupper recognised her contributions and named her vice president of the company. Once their strategy worked and the business grew, Brownie basically became the brand ambassador and face of the company, as Earl didn’t want the exposure. Wise attended marketing conferences and made guest speeches, often being the only woman in the room. While Wise didn’t invent the brand nor originated the party plan, she knew better than anyone how it worked – this earned her the spot as the first woman on the cover of Business Week in a 1954 issue, and later, other magazines.

Wise once said, “If we build the people, they’ll build the business.”

Like most iconic business partners that eventually call it quits, Earl and Brownie held differing opinions regarding the direction of the company. And in 1958, the Tupperware board ousted Brownie as vice president, providing no explanation. Wise filed a lawsuit against the company and sued for over US$ 1.6 million for breach of contract and conspiracy, but it fell through and she settled for a fraction of the sum, US$ 30 000.

Tupper eventually sold the company to Dart/Rexall for US$16 million, then divorced his wife and apparently bought an island in Central America, after he renounced his U.S. citizenship and moved to Costa Rica to evade taxes – talk about a plot twist!

As for Brownie – despite having started a couple of business ventures under three separate companies, she was never quite able to replicate the same success she had with the Tupperware parties. After having worked on her business for some time, followed by a venture in real estate, Brownie dedicated herself to her church and artistic career involving clay and textiles before she passed away in 1992.

Tupperware in South Africa

Twenty years after the brand’s inception, Tupperware was introduced to South Africa in 1964; according to the local website, they have over 270 000 operating consultants.

While younger audiences may not resonate with the brand, there is a growing interest in home decor and sleek storage solutions – but for many, purchasing habits are largely driven by aesthetic appeal and minimalist designs.

Image: Architectural Review

Another contribution to the brand’s decline in popularity and sales, is the fact that cheaper products are available and purchasing doesn’t involve contacting a consultant. But we all still know a Brownie Wise pushing Tupperware as a side hustle, even to this day.

The End of an Era

To say the brand will be phased out of homes any time soon is dubious. If they become scarce, best believe there’s going to be a Tupperware party for a final auction. And even when the last Tupperware goes extinct from homes, the containers they’ve been replaced with will be reminded of their legacy when people ask “Do you have my Tupperware?”.

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