Saturday, July 30, 2011

Party Time Plastic

What would mothers and housewives of the 1950s and 60s have done without Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise? Tupper’s invention and Wise’s savvy made it possible for women to work and earn money while keeping a focus on the domestic front in a setting of home, gossip and games. The workforce of women employed during World War II was one thing, but Tupperware parties in the post-war years were instrumental in creating a new labor demographic among women. The man who gave us Tupperware was born 104 years ago on July 28.


The inventor of Tupperware, an airtight plastic container, was born on a farm in Berlin, New Hampshire. Earl Tupper grew up dirt poor, never got beyond high school yet dreamed of becoming a millionaire, deciding his route to success would be as an inventor. Fancying himself another Thomas Edison, he carried pads of paper for scribbling down ideas. These he elaborated into notebooks filled with crudely drawn ideas for improvements to everyday gadgets, notes, descriptions and advice to himself. Tupper sent letters and drawings to different companies, but got little response. He earned a living doing landscape gardening, but was forced into bankruptcy during the depression. Tupper then found a job with Dupont Chemical.


During the 1930s, plastics were notorious for being greasy and extremely brittle with an unpleasant smell—not the kind of material that got wide use. Though Tupper’s claim to fame is the invention of Tupperware, his contributions to the science of plastics went even further. He was the first to develop a way of purifying a by-product called polyethylene slag into a form of plastic flexible, clear, and durable. He molded this new plastic into lightweight and non-breakable containers, such as cups and bowls. He later improved his design by duplicating the lid of a paint can and making the containers liquid proof with airtight lids. Tupper founded his Tupperware Plastics Company in 1938 but did not begin began selling his products in hardware and department stores until 1946.


In 1948 he joined forces with a dynamic woman named Brownie Wise who was having great success with a new scheme—selling Tupperware at home parties. She sold Tupper on the idea of parties that were fun, included silly games and a demonstration on how to use the products, as well as innovative uses of the Tupperware. The parties also happened to be an excellent platform for socializing in post-war America.

Based on the Wise marketing strategy, Tupperware products were taken off department store shelves in 1951 but experienced massive growth in sales at home demonstrations. This “party-plan” marketing conceived by Wise was a first. She enjoyed being in the spotlight with press releases and television interviews, exposure that eventually led to rumors naming her as the driving force behind Tupperware, as perhaps the woman who had rescued Earl Tupper from oblivion. In a fit of jealousy Tupper fired Wise in 1958. With no stock options, she received as severance a year’s salary. Not stopping there, Tupper purged her name from company records, removed photographs of her from the offices and threw the 600 remaining copies of her inspirational autobiography into a hole behind the company headquarters to be buried.


Soon afterward Tupper sold The Tupperware Company for $16 million to the Rexall Drug Company. He divorced his wife, gave up his US citizenship to avoid taxes, and bought an island off the coast of Costa Rica. The patent on Tupperware expired in 1984, one year after the inventor’s death in 1983.


3 comments:

  1. Happy to learn about the beginnings of Tupperware. Being married in the 50's puts me right in the time of the parties and we did enjoy those parties. I think I might have some Tupperware that was bought way back then; but, of course, the lids have gotten lost. It's still an excellent product and beats all of the "throw away" containers bought at the grocery store. Where in the world did you uncover that video???? She's not Jewish, but is trying hard to speak Jewish.....but slips and the regular accent comes through. Anyway....interesting post today

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  2. Like Beverly, Dee and I probably have some Tupperware of the 60's. Great product. Do remember attending some party (maybe Tupperware) where the games involved pushing some object (pea?) around the carpet or floor with the nose. Yikes. Geez. If I could buy an island like Earl, I might give up every day trappings also. Even Tupperware.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America