“You’re the breadwinner — but she can bring in a little cake.” That was how Anna B. Tate persuaded at least one obstinate man to let his wife join the Tupperware ladies, as vendors of the “bowls that burp” were originally known.
In 1961, as a divorced mother of three, Mrs. Tate opened one of the first Tupperware distributorships in the Washington area. Her business helped stock thousands of homes with newfangled plastic containers that kept the cookies fresh and the lettuce crisp — and gave saleswomen greater independence than many of them had ever thought possible.
For them and for Mrs. Tate, who died Feb. 18 at 97, Tupperware represented much more than “a little cake.”
Tupperware products were created in the late 1940s by Earl Silas Tupper, a quintessential American tinkerer who saw peacetime utility for plastics developed for the military during World War II. By the end of the century, the goods sat on kitchen shelves in an estimated 90 percent of U.S. homes.
Tupperware had proliferated across the country in the 1950s thanks to the marketing genius of Brownie Wise, a spunky saleswoman who divined that the products would sell best not in stores but at “Tupperware parties.”
As the self-employed owner of a Tupperware distributorship, Mrs. Tate recruited, oversaw and supplied the independent dealers who worked those parties. In an era before telecommuting, the job allowed women to make a living — and a good one — while working almost entirely from home. Mothers could look after their children during the day and attend parties in the evenings and on weekends.
“I frankly think that everybody believed a woman’s place was in the home and in the kitchen and in the bedroom, and that was it,” Mrs. Tate remarked in an interview for a PBS “American Experience” documentary called “Tupperware!”
“At a party, I’d see a lady who seemed to be very enthusiastic, . . . a bubbly type of person. . . . And I would say to her, ‘you know, I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about doing any work outside your home, but you would be a terrific Tupperware lady.’ ”
Mrs. Tate recruited Clarie Brooks of Washington about five decades ago when she came into the distributorship to return a defective beverage container. About a year after Brooks began selling Tupperware, she left her full-time computing position with the Justice Department. At a single Tupperware party, she said, she could make almost as much as she earned in a week at her government job.
“Mrs. Tate was, to me, way ahead of her time offering challenges and encouraging women,” said Brooks, who is African American. When Mrs. Tate organized bus trips to Tupperware’s Florida headquarters in the era of segregation, she refused to book hotels that would not host Brooks or allow her children to swim in the pool with white children.
Brooks said that her Tupperware earnings carried her through a divorce and allowed her to pay for her home and support her two daughters through college. Mrs. Tate also built her own home and put her children through school with her income.
Anna Beckmeyer was born in Washington, Mo., on March 24, 1915. She worked for Stanley Home Products in California and sold Tupperware in Florida before settling in the Washington area.
Her distributorship, called Capital Parties Inc., served Washington and several counties in Maryland. She sold the business in 1982 but continued her association with Tupperware as a company consultant in Europe.
Mrs. Tate was a longtime Montgomery County resident. She died there, at Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg, from heart ailments, said her son Bill Tate. She was a founding member of the Montgomery County chapter of Altrusa International, a community service organization, and belonged to Fairhaven United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg.
Her marriage to Howard Tate ended in divorce. Survivors include three children, Bill Tate of Silver Spring, Tom Tate of Medfield, Mass., and Carolyn Kent of North Bethesda; seven grandchildren; and 10 great-grandsons.
In the PBS documentary, Mrs. Tate looked back on her career, and on the history of Tupperware, with pride. “It’s meant an awful lot to thousands and thousands of women,” she said , “who were able to go out and make a good living for themselves and their family that never dreamed that it would turn out that way.”