Who Invented Tupperware?
Today the word Tupperware is a generic term for any plastic food container with a sealable lid. That’s thanks to two people: Earl Tupper, inventor of the product that bears his name, and Brownie Wise, who has been all but erased from the company’s history.
In the fall of 1945, a plastics manufacturer named Earl Tupper tried to place an order for plastic resin, one of the key ingredients in plastic, with the Bakelite Corporation. But the material was in short supply, and Bakelite couldn’t fill his order. When Tupper asked if they had anything else for him to work with, the company gave him a black, oily lump of polyethylene slag, a rubbery by-product of the petroleum refining process that collected at the bottom of oil barrels. Bakelite, makers of an early plastic by the same name, couldn’t find a use for the waste product, and neither could the chemical giant DuPont. Both companies had plenty of the stuff lying around. They told Tupper he could have as much as he wanted.
Tupper spent months experimenting with different blends of polyethylene—“Poly-T,” as he called it—and molding them at different pressures and temperatures. He eventually came up with a process for forming it into brightly colored cups, bowls, and other household items. A year later he patented the idea that he’s most famous for: the “Tupperware seal,” which provided a spill-proof, airtight seal between Tupperware containers and their lids. (He borrowed the idea from paint-can lids.) Tupper called his first sealable container the “Wonderbowl.”
Today plastic containers with airtight lids are so common that it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary Tupperware was when it was introduced in the late 1940s. In those days, if you wanted to preserve food in the refrigerator, you could cover a dish with wax paper or foil. (Plastic wrap was still a few years away.) If you wanted something that you didn’t have to throw away after a few uses, you could cover the dish with a shower cap or a damp cloth. Glass containers were available, but they weren’t cheap. They weren’t airtight, either, and if you dropped them, they shattered into tiny, razor-sharp pieces—not a good thing during the post-war Baby Boom, when lots of households had small children underfoot. None of these options were very satisfactory. It was difficult to keep food fresh for more than a day or two, or to keep everything in the fridge from smelling like everything else in the fridge.
And yet for all the advantages that Tupperware had to offer, it just sat on store shelves, even when Tupper promoted the launch with national advertising. Consumers just weren’t interested.
Part of the problem with Tupperware was that a lot of consumers couldn’t figure out how to work the lids. Some people even returned their Tupperware, complaining that the lids didn’t fit. But the real problem with Tupperware was that it was made of plastic. In those very early days of the plastics revolution, the stuff had a bad reputation: Many early plastics were oily; some were flammable. (They were smelly, too. One of the main ingredients in Bakelite was formaldehyde—the main ingredient in embalming fluid.) Some plastics were brittle and prone to chipping and cracking; others peeled, disintegrated, or “melted” and became deformed in hot water.
Tupperware didn’t have any of these problems—it was odorless, non-toxic, lightweight. It was sturdy yet flexible and kept its shape in hot water. And if you dropped it, it bounced without spilling its contents. But consumers didn’t know all that, and they were so turned off by earlier plastics that they didn’t bother to find out.
As Earl Tupper pored over the dismal sales figures, he noticed that Tupperware was popular with two types of customers: 1) mental hospitals, which preferred Tupperware cups and dishes to aluminum because they didn’t dent or make noise when patients threw them on the floor; and 2) independent salespeople who sold goods distributed by Stanley Home Products, one of the companies that pioneered the “party plan” sales method.
Stanley salespeople hawked their wares by recruiting a housewife to host a party for her friends and acquaintances. At the party, the salesperson demonstrated Stanley products—mops, brushes, cleaning products, etc.—in the hopes of selling some to the guests. Quite a few companies still sell goods using the home party system, and if you’ve ever been invited to such a party, you probably know that they aren’t always the most pleasant of experiences. A lot of people attend only out of guilt or a sense of obligation to the host and buy just enough merchandise to avoid embarrassment. The same was true in the late 1940s: People could buy cleaning products anywhere, which made it kind of irritating to have to sit through a Stanley demonstration just because a friend had invited them. Even the Stanley salespeople knew it, and that was why growing numbers of them were adding Tupperware to their Stanley offerings.
LIFE OF THE PARTY
Tupperware was no mop or bottle of dish soap. It was something new, a big improvement over the products that had come before it. Once the salesperson explained its advantages and demonstrated how the lids worked—they had to be “burped” to expel excess air and form a proper seal—people were eager to buy it. They bought a lot of it, too: Tupperware sold so well at home parties that many Stanley salespeople were abandoning the company entirely and selling nothing but Tupperware.
One of the most successful of the ex-Stanley salespeople was a woman named Brownie Wise. By the early 1950s, she was ordering more than $150,000 worth of Tupperware a year (about $1.5 million today) for the sizable home party sales force she’d built up, this at a time when Earl Tupper couldn’t sell Tupperware in department stores no matter how hard he tried.
In April 1951, he hired Wise and made her a vice president of a brand-new division called Tupperware Home Parties, headquartered in Kissimmee, Florida. (Tupper remained in Leominster, Massachusetts, overseeing the company’s manufacturing and product design.) Brownie’s new job was to build the company’s sales force, just as she’d been so successful building her own.
Tupper also pulled Tupperware from department stores. From then on, if you wanted to buy Tupperware (or any plastic container with an airtight lid, since Tupper controlled the patent), you had to buy it from a “Tupperware lady.”
The “party plan” sales method was perfect for a product like Tupperware. Clearly, it needed to be demonstrated, and once it was, people bought it. It was great for the company, too, because the sales force Brownie Wise was building cost it almost nothing. “Tupperware ladies” weren’t company employees; they weren’t paid a salary and didn’t receive benefits. Like the Stanley team before them, they were independent salespeople who earned a percentage of their sales.
The party plan was also good for the housewives who sold Tupperware. Remember, they were part of the “Rosie the Riveter” generation—women who’d worked outside the home during World War II and never lost their taste for it. Selling Tupperware offered housewives a chance to develop business skills, make their own money, and earn recognition they seldom got from cooking, cleaning, and taking care of their kids. They could sell Tupperware part-time while they raised their families, and their careers weren’t threatening to their husbands in an era when the man was still expected to be the sole breadwinner in the family.
It was even possible to make a lot of money selling Tupper-ware. Top-performing Tupperware ladies were promoted to manage other Tupperware ladies, and if the husband of a top-performing manager was willing to quit his job and join his wife at Tupper-ware, the couple could be awarded a lucrative distributorship and transferred across the country to open up new territories.
In 1953 a public relations firm told Earl Tupper that he should make Brownie Wise the public face of the company. Tupper, who was so reclusive that few company employees even knew what he looked like, happily obliged. In the years that followed, the Tupper-ware publicity department built Wise into an idealized Tupperware lady, giving her an Oprah Winfrey-like status with her sales force.
Each year thousands of Tupperware ladies paid their own way to “Jubilee,” the annual sales conference at Tupperware Home Parties headquarters in Kissimmee, Florida. One of the biggest draws of Jubilee was a chance to meet Brownie Wise. And each year she awarded refrigerators, furs, diamond jewelry, cars, and other fabulous prizes to her top performers. But some of the most coveted prizes of all were the dresses and other outfits that Wise selected from her personal wardrobe and awarded to a very lucky few. If her slender outfits did not fit the winners, many gladly shed 20 or 30 pounds just for the honor of wearing the great lady’s clothes.
Brownie Wise didn’t invent the home party system, but she made it work like it had never worked before. And in the process she and her ever-expanding sales force helped to turn Tupperware from a product that nobody wanted into one of the most iconic brands in American business history, as well known as Kleenex, Jell-O, Xerox, Frisbee, and Band-Aid. In the process, Tupperware ladies became a 1950s cultural force in their own right.
Meanwhile, sales of Tupperware were growing so quickly that the company was on track to become a $100 million-a-year company (~$823 million today) by 1960. Ironically, the only person who wasn’t pleased was Tupper himself. Though Wise had made him a millionaire many times over, and had served as the public face of Tupperware at his own request, Tupper grew increasingly resentful that she seemed to receive all the credit for making Tupperware the huge success that it was.
By 1957 Tupper was ready to sell his company, and in that male-dominated era he was afraid that he’d never find a buyer if the company had such a forceful and powerful woman as its second-in-command. In January 1958, he abruptly fired Wise, without notice and without a penny in severance pay, after accusing her of (among other things) using a Tupperware bowl as a dog dish. Wise later sued the company and settled for $30,000. Eight months later, Tupper sold the company. Price: $16 million (about $112 million today).
Tupper stayed on to run Tupperware for the new owners until he retired in 1973. In those years, he ruthlessly purged the company of any and all record of Wise’s contribution to building the business. In many ways the purge continues to this day; as late as 2011, the Tupperware website still made no mention of Brownie Wise at all.
A WORD TO THE WISE
After she was fired from Tupperware, Wise became the president of a new home party company called Cinderella Cosmetics. She hoped to persuade her Tupperware ladies to jump ship and help her build the new company, but only a handful did—even her own mother decided to stick with Tupperware.
Cinderella Cosmetics folded after just a year in business. After that Wise dabbled in Florida real estate and pursued other interests, but she never made another big mark in the business world. When she died in 1992, still living just a few miles from Tupper-ware Home Party headquarters in Kissimmee, her passing was ignored by the company and barely noted anywhere else.
Perhaps the biggest and most backhanded compliment Tupper ever paid to Brownie Wise came the day he sold the company in 1958. As he was leaving the building, he warned one of his top executives to get out while the getting was still good. “This thing is going to blow up, it’ll never last,” he told his head of manufacturing, “go out and get yourself another job.” Tupper apparently didn’t envision the company prospering long without Wise at the head of her devoted sales force, urging the ladies ever onward and upward.
He was wrong. The world has changed a lot since 1958, but Tupperware is still around; today it’s a $4.2 billion company with sales in nearly 100 countries. And though you can now buy Tupperware direct from the company’s website, you can still buy it at a Tupperware party; there are more than 2.6 million Tupper-ware ladies worldwide. Every 1.75 seconds, one of them hosts another Tupperware party somewhere in the world, using the sales techniques that Brownie Wise perfected more than a half century ago.
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Let’s all honour the Queen of Tupperware, Brownie Wise, and never forget her name!
What would suburban mums do in their freetime without her
You couldn’t fool me with this one. Because our own school was still under construction my high school graduation took place at the Tupperware auditorium in Kissimmee.
Kissimmee was actually a good choice for Tupperware marketing because Central Florida’s climate tends toward hot and humid, and food items that are not carefully sealed tend to get carried off by wildlife or converted to mysterious growths. During the late 1950s this area was also an important center of aerospace engineering, with rockets being launched, sometimes even successfully, from Cape Canaveral.
(BTW: the geographic feature is still called Cape Canaveral, the Kennedy Space Center is located there and on Merritt Island, which also has a wildlife refuge. This creates some problems, and I can recall seeing a 10 ft. alligator being manhandled away from the KSC administration building there by wildlife control officers. I once won a bet by finding a 6′ alligator within 100 ft. of the trailer where engineers worked. You will also find such creatures on the Tupperware campus. They are not imported.)
Wives from other parts of the country quickly realized the special problems with protecting foodstuffs here, and Tupperware parties were popular. (N.B. this was before political correctness, and aerospace engineering was almost entirely a male enclave.)
There is another thread of the story of polyethylene/polythene to follow in which it was a military secret used in insulation for coaxial cables for radar. At one point during WWII, Germans were harvesting the material from downed bombers for their own use. The secret process for making usable material had not reached them.