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The 25 Most Powerful TV Shows of the Last 25 Years

TV doesn’t get much respect. It rots your brain and grows couch potatoes. But the so-called idiot box also swings elections, rewires brains, snares criminals, and even sways the Supreme Court. The following may not be the best shows of the last 25 years—in fact, some are among the worst—but their impact reaches far beyond the living room.

1. Tropikanka: The Show That Won a Presidential Election

As Russians were gearing up to go to the polls in July 1996, Boris Yeltsin was nervous about his job. The weather gave him additional reason to panic. With the sun shining and the temperatures pleasant, Yeltsin fretted that his city-dwelling supporters would decamp to their dachas, or country cottages, instead of staying home and voting. Russia’s president needed a way to keep his base from traveling.

His solution: a cunning use of soap opera. No show was more popular in Russia than the Brazilian morality soap Tropikanka, which regularly drew 25 million viewers to the state-owned network ORT. With the election looming, ORT made a surprise announcement: The show’s finale would air as a special triple episode on election day between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.

More amazing was the fact that the scheme actually worked. Because most dachas didn’t have televisions, viewers stayed in the city, glued to their sets. When the episode ended, it was too late to trek out of town, but voters still had time to get to the polling station. Yeltsin’s soap opera strategy helped him prevail by more than 10 million votes. Meanwhile, The Young and the Restless can’t even sway a lousy Senate race.

2. Melrose Place: The Show That Turned Prime Time Into an Art Gallery

You probably remember Melrose Place as a vapid, if enjoyable, look at a Los Angeles apartment complex. But the show had more depth than anyone realized. Starting in 1996, the program served as a highly visible billboard for up-and-coming artists.

Melrose’s foray into the art world was masterminded by conceptual artist Mel Chin. As Chin told the Los Angeles Times in 1997, “Everyone criticizes television, but nobody tries to intervene to give it the meaning it lacks.” Chin founded the GALA Committee to do just that.

When Chin approached Melrose set decorator Deborah Siegel with the idea of dressing the show in avant-garde works, she immediately approved. Together the GALA Committee and Siegel collected pieces from artists around the country and worked them into the show. Each time viewers tuned in for a little trashy fun, they got a hidden dose of culture.

Some of the art was surprisingly subversive. Most famously, when Courtney Thorne-Smith’s character was struggling with an unplanned pregnancy, she spent two episodes hunkered down in a comfy quilt. A closer look revealed it wasn’t just a pretty pattern—it was also the molecular structure of the abortion drug RU-486.

The art world, for its part, embraced the exposure, and in 1997, the Melrose Place pieces were displayed in their own show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

3. The Simpsons: The Show That Changed How We Talk

You don’t need to turn on the TV to hear The Simpsons. Just chat with pretty much anyone. As University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor Mark Liberman wrote in 2005, “The Simpsons has apparently taken over from Shakespeare and the Bible as our culture’s greatest source of idioms, catchphrases, and sundry other textual allusions.”

Liberman’s assertion sounds crazy—at least until you remember there’s a Milhouse quote for every occasion. Even the hulking gatekeeper of the language, the Oxford English Dictionary, has found a spot for Homer Simpson’s trademark “D’oh!” Mmmm … linguistic acceptance.

4. America’s Most Wanted: The Show That Cleaned Up America’s Streets

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America's Most Wanted has helped capture over 1,100 fugitives since its debut in 1988.

5. The Theorists: The Show That Made Us Respect Belarus’s Actors

It’s no secret that television hits get licensed and remade around the globe. So when audiences in Belarus got their own knockoff of The Big Bang Theory in 2010, nothing seemed out of place. Like its American counterpart, The Theorists depicted the adventures of four lovably geeky scientists living next door to a beautiful waitress.

There was just one problem. Although the show was basically a shot-for-shot remake of the American original, Belarus’s version was unlicensed. When Big Bang Theory co-creator Chuck Lorre discovered the theft, he learned he couldn’t sue because Belarus’s government owned the production company. With no other recourse, Lorre chided the plagiarists in a title card, joking that he hoped Belarus would at least “break down and send us some felt hats.”

As it turned out, Lorre didn’t need to barter. When news broke that the show had never been licensed, the actors were mortified—they’d been told it was a legitimate production. Rather than continue to star in a rip-off, they protected their integrity by walking off the set. Left without a cast, the producers had no choice but to cancel The Theorists. The next time we need a scrupulous Eastern European actor, we know where to look.

6. Glee: The Show That Boosted the Record Industry

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FOX scored a sleeper hit with the musical series Glee in 2009. But the show’s real impact came between airings. As the rest of the record industry flailed, the Glee recordings found staggering success on iTunes. By the end of 2011, the cast had sold more than 11 million albums and another 36 million single tracks. Meanwhile, the cast’s 2011 concert tour grossed more than $40 million. Forget garage bands—aspiring stars should be shooting garage teen dramas!

7. De Grote Donorshow: The Show That Became an Organ Donor

This 2007 reality show’s horrifying premise: Three patients in need of a kidney compete for the organs of a terminally ill woman, with the dying woman picking the winner, using input from viewer text messages.

The show drew an avalanche of criticism before it aired. What could be more twisted than making sick people duke it out for vital organs as TV entertainment? Worse still, who thought that letting the same TV audiences that can barely be trusted to pick the next American Idol make such a harrowing decision? Dutch health officials vehemently condemned the show and attempted to block its airing to no avail.

Like many reality shows, De Grote Donorshow had a twist ending. Near the end of the program, presenters revealed that the show was a hoax to draw attention to Netherlands’s shortage of organ donors. The “terminally ill” woman was a healthy actress. And while the three contestants really did need kidneys, they were in on the stunt to help publicize the problem. BNN’s chairman admitted the gimmick was tasteless but said, “[W]e think the reality is even more shocking and tasteless.”

Crass or not, the effort worked: A day after the airing, 43,000 viewers requested forms to become organ donors.

8. SpongeBob SquarePants: The Show That Rewired Kids’ Brains

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In 2011, Nickelodeon’s favorite anthropomorphic sponge came under fire when a University of Virginia study showed that SpongeBob was hurting kids’ ability to perform basic tasks. The research involved a group of 60 4-year-olds who were asked to spend nine minutes watching an educational cartoon, watching SpongeBob, or coloring. Kids who watched SpongeBob scored significantly worse in tests involving solving puzzles, delaying gratification, and following instructions. The conclusion: rapidly paced TV with quick scene changes had a clear cognitive effect on children.

When the mainstream media picked up on the research, it decried the show’s mind-melting powers. Nickelodeon fired back that SpongeBob was intended for older kids, not preschoolers. One of the study’s authors even attempted to defend SpongeBob, pointing out that it was just one of many fast-paced cartoons. Her other line of defense was less helpful: She speculated that the program was particularly taxing for kids’ brains because it contained unfamiliar situations, like a talking sponge wearing square trousers. What’s worse, if you ask us, is how it deludes children into thinking they could someday live in a pineapple under the sea.

9. Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Show That Saved a Genre

In the 1980s, hour-long action shows were designed to lose money in their early seasons. Many lost as much as $600,000 per episode before recouping the shortfall with nine-figure syndication deals. But by 1987, action reruns had stopped matching the ratings of their comedic counterparts. As rich syndication contracts dried up, so did networks’ enthusiasm for dropping big money on explosions and gunfire.

Given that climate, even surefire hits like Paramount’s Star Trek spin-off couldn’t generate interest from the major channels. Undeterred, Paramount produced the series anyway and cobbled together its own group of local affiliates who agreed to broadcast the show.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in October 1987, more than 50 ABC, NBC, and CBS affiliates preempted their networks’ programming to air the two-hour premiere. Cash motivated this unprecedented defection. When local affiliates preempt their networks’ programming, they get to keep all of the ad revenue from the show rather than share it with the network. Paramount gave episodes of The Next Generation to the affiliates for free, but with a catch. Each hour-long show included 12 minutes of ads. Stations could sell five of those minutes and keep the loot; the remaining seven belonged to Paramount.

The deal was incredibly profitable for everyone involved. At a time when most 30-second commercials sold for $30,000, The Next Generation’s strong ratings let Paramount and its affiliates command $115,000. The studio responded by investing more heavily in the show to keep it at the top of the pile. By 1992, each episode had a $2 million budget—nearly double that of a normal network drama—yet it was still one of TV’s most lucrative shows, pulling in $90 million a year in ad revenue for Paramount alone.

Other studios noticed Paramount’s 40 percent return on investment from its network-bypassing model and quickly jumped into the fray with shows like Renegade and Xena: Warrior Princess. By boldly going where no show had gone before, Star Trek: The Next Generation made TV safe for action again.

10. Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Show That Improvised Justice

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In 2003, 24-year-old machinist Juan Catalan faced the death penalty for allegedly shooting a key witness in a murder case. Catalan told police that he couldn’t have committed the crime—he was at a Los Angeles Dodgers game at the time. He had the ticket stubs and everything!

When police didn’t buy his alibi, Catalan contacted the Dodgers, who pointed him to an unlikely hero: misanthropic comedian Larry David. On the day in question, David had been filming an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm in Dodger Stadium. It was a long shot, but maybe Catalan could be seen in the background. When his attorney watched the outtakes, it took just 20 minutes to find shots of Catalan and his daughter chowing down on ballpark dogs while watching from the stands.

Thanks to the footage, Catalan walked free after five months behind bars. And Larry David found one more thing to be self-deprecating about. “I tell people that I’ve done one decent thing in my life, albeit inadvertently,” joked David.

11. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Show That Spawned An Academic Discipline

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The TV sets in the ivory towers only have bunny ears for one show: Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The series has been so endlessly dissected and deconstructed by scholars that it’s formed its own loose academic discipline, Buffy Studies. It even has its own peer-reviewed academic journal, Slayage, giving new meaning to the phrase “publish or perish.”

Our favorite scholarship from Slayage:

“Buffy the Vampire Disciplinarian: Institutional Excess and the New Economy of Power”
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“I Hear It’s Best to Play Along: The Poststructuralist Turn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
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“It’s Bloody Brilliant: The Undermining of Metanarrative Feminism in the Season Seven Arc Narrative of Buffy”
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“Someone to Sink Your Teeth Into: Gendered Biting Patterns on Buffy the Vampire Slayer—A Quantitative Analysis”

12. Friends: The Show That Launched a One-Hit Wonder

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Before Friends hit the air in 1994, Natalie Merchant and R.E.M. both turned down the chance to record a theme song written by the show’s musical director. The Rembrandts, however, jumped at the opportunity. As Danny Wilde, front man for the California band, said, “We thought, Why not? Nobody will even know it was us, anyway.”

To the band’s surprise, when Friends aired, fans inundated radio stations with requests for “I’ll Be There for You.” But the track was never a proper song—it was just a 45-second slice of infectious pop. A Nashville radio station solved the problem by looping the jingle for three minutes. The stitched-together tune shot up the charts. When the Rembrandts’ record label pressured them to cut an extended version of the song, they grudgingly obeyed.

It was a smart move. The rerecorded single spent 11 straight weeks at the top of the charts and helped move more than two million copies of their album. The group admits that it’s frustrating being known for a song it didn’t write, but there’s an upside to being a well-televised one-hit wonder: The Rembrandts receive performance royalties every time a Friends rerun airs.

13. CSI: The Show That Gave D.A.’s Headaches

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By 2006, 70 million Americans were tuning into CSI or one of its two spin-offs each week. That became a real problem for prosecutors. As the show’s popularity grew, jurors started expecting the full CSI treatment in every trial. But in the vast majority of cases, police don’t need CSI-type technology to collar the perpetrator. The tests are expensive and can take weeks, and they tax already overworked crime labs. Circumstantial evidence and eyewitness accounts, on the other hand, can be just as damning for far less money.

Most of the evidence is anecdotal, but prosecutors insist that the CSI effect has raised jurors’ interest in high-tech forensic methods and led to undeserved acquittals. A study by Michigan judge Donald E. Shelton even discovered that investigators were doing unnecessary tests just to make it look like they were giving crime scenes a CSI-level scouring. Real or not, prosecutors fear the effect could cost them an important verdict. Some attorneys now ask potential jurors whether they’re fans of the show as they’re determining who to weed out during jury selection.

14. How I Met Your Mother: The Show That Revolutionized Product Placement

In July 2011, something strange happened on a rerun of How I Met Your Mother. Although the episode airing in syndication had been shot in 2006, a poster in one of the scenes was eerily modern: It was pushing Bad Teacher, a movie that had been in theaters only a few weeks. Did Neil Patrick Harris have a time machine?

The bizarrely prescient ad was the work of SeamBI, a company that has craftily elevated the practice of product placement by digitally inserting new ads into old scenes of syndicated shows. Currently, the company tends to insert posters and billboards as set dressing, but its vision doesn’t end there. SeamBI plans to slice and dice markets so that your television does what the Web has been doing for years—help advertisers target very specific geographic areas. Viewers in New York, for instance, might see a Manhattan-based billboard on an old sitcom, while Delaware viewers could see a completely different one while watching the exact same show.

As Entertainment Weekly pointed out, the scheme makes syndicated shows even more profitable, with How I Met Your Mother opening the floodgates to a whole new world. While the idea of seeing June Cleaver opening up a fridge full of Coke Zero or the Fonz leaning up against a poster for The Hangover 3 still seems laughable, SeamBI knows it’s just around the corner.

15. Sex and the City: The Show That Boosted the Pregnancy Rate

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In 2008, a RAND Institute study reported that girls between 12 and 17 who watched Sex and the City and other shows with “high sexual content” were more than twice as likely to become pregnant—a ringing endorsement for enforcing the Mature Audience rating. Of course, all that risqué chatter did some good too. A 2011 Ohio State University study found that undergraduates who viewed an episode of Sex and the City were more than twice as likely to talk to their partners about sexual-health issues.

16. The Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl Contest: The Show That Gave China the Vote

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No show has captured China’s heart the way the Super Girl Contest has. When it debuted in 2004, few would have predicted that the all-female American Idol knockoff would draw 400 million viewers. But while the Chinese people couldn’t get enough of the show, the Chinese government viewed it as a threat. The most popular contestants wore Western-style clothes and gave emotional performances that flew in the face of China’s usual stoicism. What really scared the government, however, was how viewers chose the winner by text message. In a nation where citizens have no say in who will lead them, that sort of exposure to the democratic process seemed dangerous.

Government mandarins led by culture minister Liu Zhongde blasted the show as “poison for our youth.” And even after regulators stripped the program of its text voting, the venom continued. “We can’t have working people reveling all day in low culture,” Liu said.

This being China, you can probably guess how the story ends. Government censors gave the show the ax following the 2011 season finale. Still, Super Girl managed to give China a real taste of democracy. Not even Simon Cowell could find fault there.

17. Venice: The Show That Won the Web

As Guiding Light sputtered toward cancellation in 2009, fans were distraught. The show was disappearing just as an unlikely super couple was emerging. Single mom characters Olivia Spencer (Crystal Chappell) and Natalia Rivera (Jessica Leccia) were doomed to go off the air without sharing their first kiss.

Luckily, actress Chappell saved the couple by launching the Web series Venice to explore the relationship of two women similar to Olivia and Natalia (dubbed “Otalia”). Actors and crew were so hell-bent on seeing Otalia’s romance that they worked for free. More radically, Chappell defrayed her costs by selling online subscriptions.

After spending chaste months on the air, Olivia and Natalia’s Web counterparts locked lips in the first minute of Venice, and the Daytime Emmy–winning series is now in its third season, proving that love can conquer anything, including viewers’ reluctance to pay for TV.

18. Chuck: The Show That Sold a Lot of Sandwiches

When NBC’s nerd-spy comedy Chuck looked doomed in 2009, fans embraced commercialism to keep the show afloat. Rather than launch a letter-writing campaign at the end of the second season, die-hard viewers appealed to a higher power: one of the show’s advertisers. Under operation Finale & Footlong, Chuck’s “nerd herd” flooded Subway shops to buy sandwiches. Even the show’s star Zachary Levi got into the action, leading 600 fans to a shop in Birmingham, England.

Amazingly, the ploy worked. Subway liked the business so much that it struck a deal with NBC to sponsor Chuck’s third season, complete with increased product placement. Did fans love seeing the show saturated with sandwiches? Maybe not, but watching Chuck down a foot-long was better than not watching Chuck at all.

19. Designing Women: The Show That Transcended Politics

Dixie Carter’s character on Designing Women, Julia Sugarbaker, was known for her frequent monologues praising liberal causes. Offscreen, however, Carter was a staunch Republican and found the diatribes repulsive. When the actress finally put her foot down, refusing to extol Democratic values, the show’s producers crafted a bizarre agreement. Each time Carter gave one of her character’s trademark rants, she got to sing a song in a future episode. If only Congress would learn to make such compromises.

20. Fei Cheng Wu Rao: TV Killed the Energy Star

China’s Fei Cheng Wu Rao (“If You Are the One”) is a pretty standard dating show. It won’t find any love with Beijing’s air-quality monitors, though. On a 2010 episode, a suitor asked 22-year-old Ma Nuo whether she would ride a bike with him on a date. Ma’s withering response: “I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle.” The catchphrase went viral, and it cemented the bike’s reputation as Beijing’s ultimate no-status symbol. And with air pollution and auto gridlock both up, there’s a lot to cry about in your BMW.

21. ER: The Show That Made Us Healthier

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ER did more than make George Clooney a superstar. It also changed the way America ate. In three 2004 episodes, the show explored a minor plot arc about a teenager who learns he has high blood pressure. The show’s physician characters advise the young man to exercise and eat more fruits and vegetables.

While the plot sounds humdrum, it scared viewers straight. In 2007, researchers from the University of Southern California’s medical school published a paper in the Journal of Health Communication that found that viewers who caught these episodes of ER had started walking or exercising more, eating more fruits and vegetables, or getting their blood pressure checked. How can anyone say watching TV is bad for you?

22. Days of Our Lives: The Show That Slowed Down the Supreme Court

For years before his 1991 retirement, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall slipped away from deliberations each day to watch Days of Our Lives. The show wasn’t just a guilty pleasure; it helped shape the justice’s understanding of the world. As Marshall once told Justice William Brennan, soaps teach viewers valuable lessons about life.

23. Baywatch: The Show That Proved David Hasselhoff Is a Genius

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When NBC put Baywatch on its fall prime-time schedule in 1989, the network thought it had a hit. How could a showcase for attractive women in swimsuits ever fail? But after the show scuffled in the ratings and took a critical pounding, NBC pulled the plug after just one season.

Nobody knew better than star and executive producer David Hasselhoff that mockery in the States doesn’t preclude success abroad. (Remember, this was a man who had topped Germany’s pop charts.) Hasselhoff and his co-producers bought Baywatch from the studio and re-launched it in first-run syndication.

It didn’t take long for Baywatch to conquer the world. By 1995, the show was being translated into 15 languages and entertaining citizens in 144 countries … including Iran! In fact, the globe-spanning appeal of slow-motion running and scantily clad ladies helped Baywatch surpass Dallas as the most-watched TV show of all time. Not a bad legacy for a critical dud.

24. The 1988 Eurovision Song Contest: The Show That Unleashed Céline Dion on the World

Over 200 million records sold later, her heart is still going on.

25. The Colbert Report: The Show That Won 10 Olympic Medals

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In October 2009, U.S. Speedskating was in dire straits. Its primary sponsor, the Dutch bank DSB, had gone bankrupt just months before the 2010 Winter Games. Worse still, the company hadn’t paid a cent of its pledged $300,000. Luckily for the squad, a savior was about to glide onto the rink.

On November 2, 2009, comedian Stephen Colbert made a surprise announcement that his show was becoming the team’s primary sponsor. But instead of forking over the cash himself, he asked viewers to make small donations. The money poured in:
The team received more than $300,000 from a pool of 9,000 donors, and it made for a solid investment, as the squad racked up 10 medals at the games.

What prompted Colbert’s sudden compassion for a sport he’d often lampooned? He identified with the team’s ambitious dreams and dwindling bank account. As Colbert told The New York Times, “Believe me, I spent 20 years racking up huge debts pursuing comedy.”

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Want to read the whole issue? Download our iPad edition now and get it free, courtesy of Boeing. Also available for Android and Kindle Fire!

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John Ueland
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History
How a Single Mom Created a Plastic Food-Storage Empire
John Ueland
John Ueland

On an unseasonably warm day in April 1954, hundreds of women in cowboy hats gathered outside Tupperware’s Florida headquarters to dig for buried treasure. There, in a nearby swampy area dubbed the “Forest of Spades,” 600 shovels stood at the ready. The excitement was palpable. At the appointed signal, the women raced for the roped-off soil, grabbed shovels, and began to hunt frantically for loot.

It was the pinnacle of the inaugural Tupperware Jubilee, a five-day, gold-rush-themed affair celebrating all things Tupperware. No expense was spared: To give the event a Western feel, frontier-style buildings with false fronts had been erected and bulls and horses were trucked in. The women, and a smattering of men, had traveled from all across the country to participate. A collection of Tupperware dealers, distributors, and sales managers, they made the pilgrimage for the motivational speeches, sales instruction, and especially for the bizarre bonding rituals.

For five hours that day, they prospected for mink stoles and freezer units, gold watches and diamond rings. One of them, Fay Maccalupo of Buffalo, New York, dug up a toy car. When she saw the real Ford it represented, she planted her face against the hood and began to weep, repeating, “I love everybody.” Four women fainted and had to be revived with smelling salts. It was understandable, considering that the total cash value of all the prizes buried in the Florida dirt was $75,000.

Presiding over the treasure hunt was the general sales manager of the Tupperware Home Parties division, a 40-year-old woman named Brownie Wise. For hours, she cheered on the ladies from a loudspeaker with an air of royalty. As she watched them hop on shovels and unearth the rewards of their labors, she couldn’t help but feel proud. Wise took satisfaction in seeing her hard work pay off—once again. The jubilee, which she had organized, had all the pizzazz and spirit expected of an official Tupperware event. The media agreed: Network news was there to cover it, and Life magazine ran a photo essay highlighting the excitement and glamour.

Clearly, there’s more to Tupperware than leftovers. The story of the ubiquitous plastic container is a story of innovation and reinvention: how a new kind of plastic, made from an industrial waste material, ended up a symbol of female empowerment. The product ushered women into the workforce, encouraging them to make their own money, better their families, and win accolades and prizes without fear of being branded that 1950s anathema, “the career woman.”

Digging in the dirt for a gold watch may not mesh with today’s concept of a successful working woman, but at the time, the near-religious fervor seen at the jubilees and other Tupperware gatherings demonstrated just how ground-breaking the company’s sales plan was—the product became a multimillion dollar success not by exploiting women, but by embracing and boosting them. All of this was because of Brownie Wise. The story of Tupperware is her story.

Brownie Wise, named for her big, brown eyes, was born in rural Georgia. Her parents divorced when she was young, and as a teen she traveled with her mother, who organized union rallies. While touring the Deep South, Brownie started giving speeches at her mother’s rallies and soon proved to be a gifted and motivating orator. She “awed people,” writes Bob Kealing in his biography Tupperware Unsealed. “[They] were surprised that someone so young could deliver a speech like a pastor.”

Wise was married briefly, but by 27, she was a divorced single mom in suburban Detroit. During World War II, she worked as a secretary at Bendix Aviation, a company that made parts for navy torpedo planes. It was a decent but unfulfilling job. On the side, Wise penned an advice column for the Detroit News, writing under the alter ego “Hibiscus.” A housewife who led an idyllic life with her child and husband in a home called “Lovehaven,” Hibiscus had everything Wise did not. But what Wise did possess was an endless fountain of determination. As she wrote in a journal at that time, “I wanted to be a successful human being.”

It all started with a bad door-to-door salesman. When a Stanley Home Products salesman knocked on her door and proceeded to deliver a terrible sales pitch for cleaning supplies, Wise scoffed that she could do better. At the time, Stanley was experimenting with a peculiar sales model: home parties. A New Hampshire mop salesman had watched his numbers fly through the roof after he invited a bunch of women over for a party that included a mop demonstration. The company encouraged other salesmen to try the strategy, but many of them delegated the party-hosting to their wives. Thinking it’d be a fun job on the side, Wise started selling Stanley products at parties too. Before long, she was making enough money to quit her job at Bendix.

Wise was blessed with the gift of gab, and her special blend of folksy real talk and motherly encouragement helped her rise through Stanley’s ranks. Soon she was in management and hoping to ascend even higher. But those illusions were quashed at a meeting with Stanley head Frank Beveridge, who told Wise she’d never become an executive. Its halls were “no place for a woman,” he said. Wise returned home furious. The rejection lit a fire in her—she vowed that someday, somehow, she would prove Beveridge wrong.

She didn’t know that the key to fulfilling this dream would be in plastic food-storage containers. Wise first glimpsed Tupperware at a sales meeting. One of her coworkers had seen the products gathering dust in a department store and decided to bring them in. At first, Wise didn’t think they were anything special. But when she accidentally knocked a Tupperware bowl off the table, she realized its full potential: Instead of breaking, it bounced.

It seemed like magic. Tupperware was unlike any home product she’d seen before. It was attractive, coming in pastel colors and flexible shapes, almost like art. More importantly, it was functional—no other competing product even came close. Convinced of its potential, Wise traded in her Stanley brooms in 1949 and started throwing parties to sell Tupperware. What she didn’t intend, exactly, was to kindle a revolution.

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The most amazing thing about Tupperware wasn’t that it extended the life of leftovers and a family’s budget, although it did both remarkably well. It was, above all, a career maker. When women came to one of Wise’s parties, they were more than just convinced to buy the product— Wise was such a charming host that she persuaded many buyers to also become Tupperware salespeople. The more parties Wise hosted, the more tricks she learned to convert women into Tupperware faithful. Putting people on waiting lists, for instance, made them more eager to buy, so she signed them up regardless of whether the product was available. She also discovered that throwing containers full of liquid across the room made customers reach straight for their checkbooks. Amassing more and more saleswomen, Wise encouraged her followers to do the same. By October 1949, she had 19 recruits, enough to move her supplies out of her house and into a larger warehouse. Driven by the idea of making money simply by throwing parties for friends and neighbors, the women in Wise’s workforce ballooned in number. Soon, other Tupperware parties were taking place across the country. Wise’s team in Detroit was selling more Tupperware than most department stores. This soon attracted the attention of the no-nonsense founder of the Tupperware Corporation, Earl Silas Tupper.

Tupperware, true to its name, was Tupper’s masterpiece, and he was counting on it to make his dreams come true. Having grown up in a poor Massachusetts farm family, he had vowed to make a million dollars by the time he was 30. He hadn’t. He did have a host of esoteric inventions—among them, a fish-powered boat and no-drip ice cream cone—under his belt. But with a wife and family to support, he’d concentrated on a practical career in plastics, first at DuPont and then at a company of his own, which made parts for Jeeps and gas masks during World War II. When the war ended, Tupper decided to buy cheap surpluses left over from wartime manufacturing. He figured he’d be able to do something with them.

That’s how he ended up with a glob of greasy black polyethylene, a smelly waste product left behind when metal is created from ore. Tupper took it and, after months of trial and error, wrangled the slag into submission, creating a light-weight plastic that refused to break. Tupper dubbed it “Poly-T,” and, taking inspiration from the way paint cans sealed, created a flexible container with a noiseless lid that snapped on. He called the box Tupperware. He patented the seal in 1949 and rolled out 14 products he called the “Millionaire Line.” The only problem? He couldn’t get anyone to buy it.

At least not until Wise came along. Her sales record was remarkable—in 1949, she’d rung up $150,000 in orders and was offered a promotion: distribution rights to the entire state of Florida. In the spring of 1950, she moved south with her son, Jerry, and her mother. She found a store space, and by May she’d opened her business and was scouting for new salespeople.

Still, not everything was going smoothly. Along with disputes over turf with other distributors, she was constantly contending with botched orders, shipping delays, and product shortages. In March of 1951, Wise had had enough. She called Tupper in a fury. It was the first time they’d spoken, but she was too livid for niceties; she ripped into him immediately. This was hurting not just her bottom line, but also his. Did he not understand how crucial it was that the problems be fixed immediately? Tupper assured her that he’d fix any issues and then asked a favor: He wanted to hear her sales secrets.

The next month, the two met at a conference on Long Island and Wise explained her selling technique. It was pointless, she explained, to think that people would see Tupperware on store shelves or in catalogs and want to buy it. Instead, people had to touch it, squeeze it, drop it, seal it. They had to experience Tupperware from a trusted friend or neighbor. She gave a bold prescription for saving Tupper’s business: Ditch department stores altogether and focus entirely on throwing home parties.

Tupper took the advice to heart. So much, in fact, that the day after their meeting, he created a new division just for home parties and asked Wise to be the general manager. Wise had reached her goal: She had become an executive. It was a perfect fit, too. She had a stellar track record—she was selling more Tupperware than anyone anywhere—and Tupper was bowled over by her charm. “You talk a lot and everybody listens,” he said.

“She was the yin to Tupper’s yang,” Kealing writes. “Where he was fussy and reclusive, Wise lived to mingle with and inspire the dealer workforce.” They were a match made in sales heaven. Or so it seemed.

AP

In 1952, the first full year of Wise’s watch, Tupperware sales rocketed. Wholesale orders exceeded $2 million. During the last half of the year, sales tripled. Tupperware parties did exactly what Wise promised they would, and she became the company’s shining star. That year, Tupper gave her a salary of $20,933.33, more than she had ever made. For her birthday in 1953, he presented her with a gold-dyed palomino horse. Even more remarkably, he gave her the freedom to do practically whatever she wanted. So Wise traveled the country recruiting, presiding over sales conferences, and announcing contests and doling out prizes for incentive—including, sometimes, her own clothes.

By the looks of it, most of Wise’s Tupperware recruits fit neatly into the stereotypical role of a proper housewife. But, in reality, they surreptitiously represented a new kind of female empowerment. During World War II, many women had no choice but to enter the workforce. At its end, many of them had no choice but to leave it. Suddenly, selling Tupperware at parties allowed women to straddle both worlds. They were employed, yet they didn’t appear to challenge their husbands' authority or the status quo. This pioneering entrepreneurial model allowed them to inhabit a workforce outside of the one the hustling salesman inhabited, and, in many cases, to do even better than he did. And that power relied specifically on a network of female friends and neighbors.

The parties weren’t just a way for women to keep occupied—it was a way they could contribute to their family’s bottom line. Most women who worked outside the home had low-paying jobs in fields like light manufacturing, retail, clerical work, and health and education. The money—committed dealers could bring in $100 or more per week—was a revelation. The opportunity for success was so great that the husbands of some Tupperware ladies left their own jobs to work with their wives.

Wise was something of an early Oprah, giving away fantastic prizes, operating in a grass-roots, word-of-mouth fashion and showing rather than telling other women how to succeed in the comfort of their own homes. The fact that she made many women understand the benefits of becoming salespeople, building the brand further, simply made her a fantastic executive.

Wise embraced the spirit of female entrepreneurship wholeheartedly. In her prime, she wrote a morale-boosting newsletter called Tupperware Sparks, published a primer called Tupperware Know-How, and had a 52-minute film, A Tupperware Home Party, made as a training tool. She even convinced Tupper to move the company headquarters to Florida. When Tupper bought property in Kissimmee, Wise turned it into a Mecca-like pilgrimage site for Tupperware devotees.

Part of the power of Wise’s sales technique, which at times seemed more faith than business, was that it gave the impression that the sky was the limit, and it relied on collective power. This wasn’t just the traditional salesperson’s dog-eat-dog world: Instead, the group was a “family” that helped one another climb to the top. Women who had previously only had their names in print upon birth or marriage were being recognized for their success, with their names, photographs, and accomplishments appearing in Wise’s newsletters. Along with making their own money, they received rewards—top distributors got cars—and the chance to collaborate with other women in a friendly but competitive environment. Wise increased the fervor with her annual jubilees, which had their own rituals, like candlelit graduation ceremonies and group sing-alongs featuring choruses of “I’ve got that Tupper feeling deep in my heart.”

“No woman got praised for scrubbing floors,” Elsie Mortland, who became Tupperware’s Home Kitchen Demonstrator, told Kealing in an interview in 2005. “But when they got praised for selling Tupperware, they had something to be proud of.”

Wise was the head of the household, and the Tupperware ladies all wanted to be a part of her extended family. Success was limited only by how hard a person was willing to work, a belief that Wise preached passionately. Unfortunately, she had been duped into thinking her boss shared that opinion.

Alamy

As Wise became the face of Tupperware, sales and press continued to skyrocket. In 1954, she was the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week. But as glowing as the magazine’s profile was, it contained warning signs about the future of her partnership with Tupper. The piece credited Wise and her sales technique with Tupperware’s estimated $25 million in retail sales and seemed to downplay Tupper’s role as president of the company he had created.

Tupper had never craved the spotlight; in fact, he was known to use the back door of his office to avoid attracting attention. But he was keen to ensure that his product, not an employee, received the lion’s share of any attention. And somewhere along the way, Wise had started to upstage the plastic containers she helped make famous. After the Business Week article, Tupper wrote a note to Wise that contained a glimmer of the storm that was to come: “However, good executive as you are, I still like best the pictures ... with TUPPERWARE!”

The good press continued but, in 1955, after several powerful distributors left the company, sales began to lag. Hard times strained Wise and Tupper’s relationship. By 1956, angry letters were flying back and forth between them, and at one point, Tupper stopped taking Wise’s calls. Her complaints and frank criticisms, previously helpful, had become jabs he couldn’t endure. He also started to believe that she was costing him money, irked that she had her own side business selling self-help books at company events. More to the point, he started to suspect that if he tried selling the company—which he was planning to do—having a female executive would get in the way.

Finally, in 1958, Tupper flew to Florida and fired Wise. After a heated legal battle, she received only $30,000 as a settlement. She didn’t own her house and was ordered to vacate. She had no stocks in the company; she didn’t even own many of the clothes she wore. The man she’d helped make a millionaire didn’t seem to care: Tupper ordered her name expunged from the company history and buried the 600 remaining copies of her book in an unmarked pit behind Tupperware’s Florida headquarters. Later that year, he sold the company to Rexall Drug for $16 million, divorced his wife, and bought an island in Central America. He died in Costa Rica in 1983. Wise, on the other hand, tried starting new companies but never achieved the same success she had with Tupperware. She led a quiet life with her horses, pottery, and her son until she died at her home in Kissimmee in 1992.

Her influence, however, has not waned. Today, according to the PBS American Experience documentary Tupperware!, the product is sold in about 100 countries, while “every 2.5 seconds, a Tupperware party is held somewhere in the world.” In this respect, the Golden Age of Tupperware hasn’t ended so much as it has solidified. When was the last time you stored food in a plastic container with a sealing mechanism? Tupperware is so much a part of our food culture that we don’t even think about its continuing influence, and yet we still rely on it daily.

This story is one of reinvention too: a useless plastic reimagined into something needed, of food being stored in wholly new ways, of women emerging from their kitchens to showcase their worth and proclaim their identities, of sales techniques evolving to embrace the customer, and of the singular character of Brownie Wise, who changed what it meant to be a woman in the workforce. Because of that, as Houston Post writer Napoleon Hill wrote in 1956, “It has been estimated that Brownie Wise has helped more women to financial success than any other single living person.”

Early in Wise’s tenure at the company, Tupper presented her with a piece of the raw polyethylene he’d used to make Tupperware. She saw it as poetic proof of his vision: He had created something beautiful from this unappealing glob of plastic, using nothing but imagination and persistence. It was “the best sales story I have ever heard in all my life,” she wrote. She considered “Poly,” as Tupper called it, a prized possession and would have her women touch it for good luck, telling them, “Just get your fingers on it, wish for what you want. Know it’s going to come true, and then get out and work like everything ... and it will!”

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History
The Confederacy's Plan to Conquer Latin America
Hulton Archive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images

In the years leading up to the Civil War, many Northerners and Southerners alike wanted the federal government to take a more aggressive approach toward acquiring new territory. In fact, some private citizens, known as filibusters, took matters into their own hands. They raised small armies illegally; ventured into Mexico, Cuba, and South America; and attempted to seize control of the lands. One particularly successful filibuster, William Walker, actually made himself president of Nicaragua and ruled from 1856 to 1857.

For the most part, these filibusters were just men in search of adventure. Others, however, were Southern imperialists who wanted to conquer new territories in the tropics. Abolitionist factions in the North greatly opposed their efforts, and the debate over Southern expansion only increased tensions in a divided nation. As the country drifted into war, U.S. Vice President John Breckinridge of Kentucky warned that "the Southern states cannot afford to be shut off from all possibility of expansion towards the tropics by the hostile action of the federal government."

But Abraham Lincoln's election in November 1860 put an end to the argument. The anti-slavery president refused to compromise on the issue, and war broke out in April 1861.

CONFEDERATE COLONIES, SOUTH OF THE BORDER

Winning the war was clearly a higher priority for the Confederacy than conquering Latin America, but growth was certainly on the post-war agenda. The Confederate constitution included the right to expand, and Confederacy president Jefferson Davis filled his cabinet with men who thought similarly. He even hinted that the slave trade could be revived in "new acquisitions to be made south of the Rio Grande."

During the Civil War, Confederate agents attempted to destabilize Mexico so that its territories would be easy to snatch up after the war. One rebel emissary to Mexico City, John T. Pickett, secretly fomented rebellion in several Mexican provinces with an eye to "the permanent possession of that beautiful country." Pickett's mission ended in failure in 1861, but fate dealt the South a better hand in 1863. French Emperor Napoleon III seized Mexico, and the move provided the South with a perfect excuse to "liberate" the country after the Civil War.

Of course, Mexico was just part of the pie that the South hoped to inherit. Confederate leaders also had their eyes squarely on Brazil—a country of 3 million square miles and more than 8 million people. Prior to the outbreak of the war, Matthew Maury, one of the forces behind the U.S. Naval Academy, dispatched two Navy officers to the Amazon basin, ostensibly to map the river for shipping. Instead, they were secretly plotting domination and collecting data about separatist movements in the region. When the South lost the war, Maury refused to abandon his plans. He helped up to 20,000 ex-rebels flee to Brazil, where they established the Confederate colonies of New Texas and Americana. To this day, hundreds of descendants of the Confederados still gather outside Americana to celebrate their shared heritage of rocking chairs and sweet potato pie. In a strange way, a part of the Old South still survives—thousands of miles below the U.S. border.

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