Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Wise, Brownie

WISE, BROWNIE

Brownie Wise was a revolutionary American saleswoman. Her development of the “party plan” marketing system was largely responsible for making Tupperware successful. Born “Brownie Mae Humphrey” on May 25, 1913 in rural Buford, Georgia, Wise was raised primarily by her Aunt Pearl, a dressmaker near Atlanta, after her parents’ divorce. Surrounded by an extended group of cousins during her childhood, she quickly discovered that she had a knack for getting her way, and at achieving her goals through charm and persuasion. In 1936, at the Texas centennial celebration in Dallas, she met Robert W. Wise, who was in charge of the Ford Motor Company’s exhibit. The couple married on December 15, 1936 and moved to Detroit shortly afterwards.

 While living in Detroit as a housewife and a mother to her only child, Jerry, Wise made regular contributions to the Detroit News’ “Experience” column, a readers’ forum to which many Detroit citizens (mainly women) wrote to, especially under pen names like “Gin Whistle,” “Hippety Hop,” and “Nokansee.” Wise chose the pen name “Hibiscus,” and wrote long, carefully crafted, and often romanticized descriptions of her life. After she and Robert Wise divorced in the early 1940s, she took jobs as a salesperson in a clothing store and as a secretary for Bendix Aviation. To earn extra income, Wise began selling Stanley Home Products at home party demonstrations. Stanley was a pioneer in direct selling, and Wise soon became one of their top sellers. In the late 1940s, Wise was first introduced to Tupperware, a new polyethylene product that was being sold, with limited success, at department stores across the nation. She and several other Stanley branch managers developed the idea to sell Tupperware at home parties so that users would learn how to “burp” the airtight Tupper seal correctly. Soon after, Wise decided to switch from selling Stanley Home Products to selling Tupperware. She recruited dealers and managers, and quickly thrived from selling Tupperware at home parties.

 In 1950, Wise moved to Florida with her mother and her son Jerry. There, she started a company called Tupperware Patio Parties, which soon sold more Tupperware than any department store, making Florida the center of Tupperware’s sales force. Her remarkable success caught the eye of Earl Tupper, the inventor of Tupperware, who had unsuccessfully attempted to start a home party division within his company. After Wise accepted his invitation to become the vice president of the company, Tupper removed the sale of Tupperware from all hardware and department stores, and from then on, Tupperware was only sold through the home party plan.

With Earl Tupper’s blessing, Tupperware’s public relations staff promoted Wise extensively, taking advantage of her rare status as a female executive of a major American company. As the company continued to grow, Wise appeared on talk shows, was quoted by newspapers, and was even pictured on the cover of numerous magazines, becoming the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week. However, a falling out between Wise and Tupper resulted in her abrupt firing from the company in 1958. Wise spent the remainder of her years starting unsuccessful home party cosmetics companies, working as a consultant to direct sales companies, and dabbling a bit in Florida real estate and ceramics. On September 24, 1992, Brownie Wise passed away in Kissimmee, Florida at the age of 79.

 Although her tenure as one of the heads of Tupperware was short-lived, Wise left a lasting legacy in American business. She had an instinctive grasp of consumer culture, and she knew how to inspire people to work harder. She was a good writer, an excellent speaker, and she worked to encourage women to join business. Wise offered women the opportunity to earn extra money and to travel by selling Tupperware, and praised their accomplishments through trophies and luxury goods. Under her guidance and direction, Tupperware home parties became the “gold standard” for home party selling. Many other large companies copied the formula Wise had perfected throughout her career.

Written by Julia Teran