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Positive Thinking in America

Tupperware culture, and the culture of most direct selling businesses, is infused with the rhetoric of positive thinking manuals, a genre of writing with a long history in the United States.

American Self-Reliance
"How to succeed" books have been available in the United States since before the Industrial Revolution. Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac, first published in 1732, the Horatio Alger stories of the 19th century, and the growing roster of 20th and 21st century writer-speakers following in the footsteps of Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale all preach self-reliance. They are, as sociologist and historian Nicole Biggart has described, "a uniquely North American expression of a belief in self-reliance, the value of education, and hard work in achieving mobility."

Success, 18th-Century Style
The American definition of success, and the routes recommended for achieving it, have changed over time. In 18th-century advice books like Benjamin Franklin's, success meant status, virtue and wealth, and the route to it was economic restraint and piety. People were not encouraged to amass material riches for consumption or pleasure; instead, they were encouraged to see themselves as stewards of God's bounty. They were urged to conserve and multiply wealth through savings and reinvestment.

Defining Success in the 19th Century
In the 19th century, the Protestant ethic was transformed. Getting ahead, according to the popular advice manuals and inspirational biographies of the period, was a matter of developing character traits conducive to entrepreneurship such as foresight, integrity, perseverance, and good judgment. Success was more narrowly defined to mean wealth -- and hundreds of "rags-to-riches" stories were published, singing the praises of men, like Andrew Carnegie, who defied the odds to build business empires.

The 20th Century Ethic
In the 20th century, a new ethic evolved. Where the rags-to-riches stories emphasized character, effort, and initiative, these new books promoted the selling of the self. A lesson of the Great Depression seemed to be that hard work alone was not enough to succeed. Dale Carnegie's incredibly popular book, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), suggested that striving was its own reward, and offered formulas for making people likeable and charmingly persuasive. It dominated the success literature for years --and it is still in print. By the 1950s, Norman Vincent Peale was the big name in the field. His book, The Power of Positive Thinking, outsold every non-fiction book in the mid-1950s except the Bible.

Tupperware Thinking
The language of positive thinking permeated the culture of the Tupperware business. Horatio Alger-type stories and popular success manuals like Dale Carnegie's had deeply influenced plastics inventor Earl Tupper. Tupperware's extraordinary marketer, Brownie Wise, collected, copied, and circulated inspirational positive thoughts she found in books and magazines. Her language at sales rallies and Jubilees, in company literature and sales manuals is a mixture of 19th century self-improvement ideas and 20th century self-promotional positive thinking. In a magazine article, Wise wrote, "there's nothing a woman can't do if she tries. I believe that with faith in the right thing, you must succeed." Know-How, the guide for Tupperware dealers, advised, "Be a cheerful person if you would make friends. When you speak during your demonstration remember that your physical action begins with your eyes. LOOK at the guests!" This was advice one might have heard in a Dale Carnegie public speaking course. When Wise wrote her own book of positive thinking, Best Wishes, Brownie Wise: How to Put Your Wishes to Work (1957), the famous Dr. Peale, a frequent speaker at Tupperware Jubilees, wrote the foreword.

Rewarding Women
Brownie Wise's version of positive thinking had a gendered twist. Wise made great efforts to reward the achievements of women in a culture that rarely gave women recognition. The women who were cheered at Tupperware rallies, who were crowned and pinned and given Jubilee diplomas, were, by and large, women who hadn't been to college -- women who might have ended up in dead-end jobs where praise and prizes from the boss would have been scarce or nonexistent. Wise gave these women the material gifts of their dreams -- and confidence in themselves. She told them, "You are your own treasure chest."

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