Originally published August 31, 2020
A real Georgia peach, Brownie Mae Humphrey was born in 1913; the name derived from her big brown eyes. With an absentee mother and father, she would rediscover herself as Brownie Wise—the face of Tupperware—empowering women across the nation in the 1950s. An only child, Brownie spent much of her time living with her aunt and cousins after her parents divorced. Her mother traveled a great deal with her job. Although a good student, she fancied fashion and boys more, and through charm and persuasion, usually got her way.
Brownie won a mural contest at the Texas Centennial in 1936. There she met a man who’d soon become her husband. After having a child, Jerry, Robert’s bouts of violent drunkenness drove them to divorce in 1942, leaving Brownie a single mom.
She used her personality traits, charm sprinkled with a bit of persuasion, to become a great saleswoman. Brownie sold Stanley Home Products, the company that established the in-home selling market, and in no time, Brownie became the top saleswoman. After proving her success, she approached some of Stanley’s managers, questioning them about having her in management. Their nonchalant attitudes and similar responses like “management is no place for a woman” turned Brownie’s focus toward another company.
Tupperware was already in the marketplace, but sales were low. The Tupperware patent “burping” seal confused consumers, so they would return the products stating the lids didn’t fit. Brownie found the beautiful pastel colors in different sizes an appealing and lucrative opportunity.
Already having moved to Florida, Brownie envisioned Tupperware at-home demonstrations. So she launched her own company called Patio Parties. All she needed to do was create a relaxing party environment with games, have the host invite friends and family, and show them how to “burp” the products. She recruited and trained women in her area, and soon she was outselling the stores. Tupperware’s owner, Earl Tupper, caught wind of her success and seized the opportunity by making her Vice President of Tupperware. The construction of Tupperware would remain in New England while home sales would reside in Florida. As Brownie said, “When you help someone up a hill, you find yourself closer to the top.” She followed her intuition, helping Tupperware prosper, and wound up in a managerial role she desperately wanted and deserved.
Brownie’s appearance and appeal caught on like wildfire. She took the basic sales model from Stanley Home Products and mastered direct selling. With her knowledge and personality, she motivated other women to take charge of their lives. Home demonstrations were a way for housewives and mothers to get out of the house and contribute to household earnings. Brownie had a way with words, and her speeches uplifted women. She may have been the white suburbanite face of Tupperware, but her reach stretched toward minorities.
Female executives were rare in the 1950s, so Brownie’s success stirred the world. She appeared on several talk shows, magazines quoted her, and she was the first woman on the cover of Businessweek. She was innovative, advancing other women, thus carving a future for the working woman. Brownie gave personalized demonstrations to editors of Vogue and Glamour. She provided leadership for women throughout the United States, yet never considered herself a feminist—just said, “'I needed the money for me and my kid. So I got out there and made it.'
Brownie once said, “If we build the people, they’ll build the business.” She believed in inspiring women to be successful—to have them wish for what they wanted—allowing a product to speak for itself. Women responded to her, wanted to be like her, and in the end, sprouted a new revolution. Husbands of exceptionally prosperous Tupperware saleswomen quit their jobs to work with their wives. Brownie even convinced Tupper to move the headquarters to Florida, which he did.
In 1954, Brownie started the Tupperware Homecoming Jubilee. Sellers from around the nation came to participate in classes and take part in competitions that offered extravagant prizes. Things started to sour soon after when Earl Tupper wrote a note to Wise stating, “However, good executive as you are, I still like best the pictures ... with TUPPERWARE!” She was tired of his micro-management, and he was tired of her spending habits, ideas, and being the face of Tupperware.
Tupper had planned to sell the company but believed it would be a hard sell with an outspoken woman in the sales division, so he fired her in 1958. Brownie had no shares in the company, received a year’s salary after a court battle, and since she didn’t own her home, he kicked her out. Earl Tupper ordered her name and persona expunged from Tupperware’s history and buried the remaining 600 of her books behind the company headquarters. Within that year, he sold the company, divorced his wife, and moved to Costa Rica.
Brownie forged her way upward when there were few role models to learn from or lean on. She gave women the freedom to work while still maintaining a household. Afterward, Brownie tried cosmetic home sales but never found the success she had with Tupperware. She died in 1992, her name and success with Tupperware buried with her. It wasn’t until 2008 when Bob Kealing released the burp and paid tribute to the woman who made Tupperware what it was and what it still is today—a household name.
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Denise Haschka is a native of the South Side of Chicago, Illinois, and currently resides in Germany with her husband and fur-baby, Shakespeare. She can be stubborn and downright finicky; the last one doesn’t apply to food, though. Perseverance is a trait she often associates with her college degree, but she’s still waiting for her Pulitzer Prize nomination. Denise is a blogger, poet, and multi-genre author of two published books: a dark, psychological suspense thriller Net Switch; and women’s fiction/romantic comedy adventure Fogged Up Fairy Tale.