The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America

By Alison J. Clarke

Smithsonian Institution. 241 pp. $24.95

Earl Silas Tupper invented Tupperware, but perky single mother Brownie Wise brought it into your home. Together, they created a product that, according to Alison J. Clarke's "Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America," contains the rise of consumption, the growth of the suburbs and the empowerment of 1950s-era women under its airtight lid.

Ideally, the story of Tupper and his historic invention would have been told as a capitalist fable, a legend of two savvy outsiders pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to achieve the American dream. But Clarke's well-researched book is not that fable. It is a heavily academic cultural critique of Tupperware as a symbol of "modernity," an "artifact" of consumerism and a facilitator of suburban "social networks"--all words that will make ex-undergraduates instinctively reach for their yellow highlighters. Yet beneath the jargon, Clarke ably evokes the Horatio Algeresque characters of Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise.

During the Depression, Tupper, a tree surgeon, would return home after a day's work and tinker with inventions. He hoped to invent his way into prosperity as well as "enhance the lives of 'the masses.' " To that end, he created devices that furthered domestic bliss--a streamlined sled for his son, a self-standing toothpaste and shaving-cream dispenser for him and his wife--and also seemed commercially viable. His tinkering eventually led to the more lucrative work of making plastic models for a company located near his Massachusetts home. With the advent of World War II, he was able to found a factory that produced war materials.

But still Tupper kept tinkering. One day in 1942, he saw a lump of chemical waste and--if Tupper Corp. literature is to be believed--"looked deep into the material and found Tupperware." The material, a form of polyethylene that Tupper patented as "Poly-T: Material of the Future," was to revolutionize America. Tupper believed that "his refrigerator dishes were . . . destined to change the lives of American citizens and help dispel the discontentment of a wasteful consumer society," writes Clarke. Soon his factory was churning out plastic tumblers, canister sets and Wonder Bowls.

At first, however, consumers did not share his vision. Despite publicity stunts (Tupper sent Britain's then-Princess Elizabeth a wedding gift of the plastic dishes) and critical acclaim (the magazine House Beautiful described Tupperware as "Fine Art for 39 Cents"), shoppers remained indifferent until Brownie Wise came on the scene. Wise, a struggling single parent, owned a small company that sold products, including Tupperware, at gatherings for women. Her high sales figures caught Tupper's eye. When he asked what her secret was, she replied, "The Tupperware party." A legend was born. Tupper pulled Tupperware from store shelves and made Wise, who had no corporate experience, vice president of a newly formed subsidiary called Tupperware Home Parties.

From 1951 onward, Tupperware was sold by self-employed, nonsalaried salespeople, mostly women, at parties in their homes, with astounding success. Wise became a national heroine and the first woman ever to appear on the cover of Business Week. Under Wise, Tupperware metamorphosed from handy kitchen container to a source of community in isolated suburbs and a way for women trapped by traditional domestic servitude to make money.

Unfortunately, Wise, while hugely successful, ran up against Tupper's philosophy. Rather than ameliorate the waste of consumer society, she gloried in it. Clothed in couture and jewels, she encouraged her dealers to aspire to the same. She held increasingly extravagant "Homecoming Jubilees" for the Tupperware sales force. For the most outrageous one, the "Big Dig," she seeded an acre of the company's grounds with expensive goods--mink stoles, diamond rings, toy Cadillacs (to be exchanged for the real thing) and more--handed out shovels to her dealers and told them to "strike it rich." It was a five-hour-long orgy of greed. Tupper was not pleased. The final outrage occurred when "an unnamed source" reported seeing a Tupperware bowl being used as a dog dish at Wise's glamorous lakeside home. Accused of undermining the company's image, she was forced to resign.

If this story were a capitalist fable, both Tupper and Wise would have lived happily ever after, getting ever richer. Alas, they did not, but the Tupper Corp. did. Tupper sold the company in 1958 and divorced his wife of many years, while Wise searched in vain for her next big success. Meanwhile, Tupperware's sales topped $1 billion in 1997, and according to Clarke, 90 percent of American homes contain at least one piece of the ingenious plastic product. But the big business for the company lies overseas--85 percent of its sales are outside the United States. The company that mastered the American transition from Depression-era frugality to late-century consumption has taken on the world. From Inuit villages in the far north to Japan in the east, a Tupperware party takes place somewhere in the world every 2.5 seconds. Watch out. There's one happening near you.