Sealed with a Whisper

An advertisement for Tupperware from 1971.

As Kleenex is for tissues and Xerox for photocopiers, the Tupperware brand name is shorthand for all household plastic containers. Behind the brand's success stand two determined people: an inventor and a single mother. In the early 1940s Earl Tupper devised his new plastic containers; in the 1950s Brownie Wise and her army of “Tupperware ladies” earned his plastics a spot in millions of homes across the nation.

The translucent, whisper-sealed bowls and the home parties where they were demonstrated and sold are enduring icons of popular culture. However, when Tupper began his plastics research in the late 1930s, the jury was still out on the value of these new materials. Some plastics, such as celluloid and Bakelite, had found industrial and household uses, but others were shoddy and unreliable. Low prices and easy-care promises lost their allure in a welter of deteriorating shower curtains and bowls warped by hot liquids. Working as a freelance plastics sample maker for a division of DuPont, Tupper sought improved materials, manufacturing methods, and product ideas. “Better Things for Better Living ... through Chemistry,” the company’s advertising slogan, resonated with the determined, self-taught entrepreneur from rural Massachusetts. Tupper founded his own plastics company in 1939 to make and market his inventions, including such “fancy goods” as the Sure Stay hairpin and the Kamoflage comb and nail file, which masqueraded as a fountain pen.

During World War II, Tupper became a subcontractor for DuPont, making plastic parts for gas masks, signal lamps, and other military equipment. Through this relationship he obtained a large amount of polyethylene slag for his own use, even though wartime shortages restricted many industrial materials. Tupper experimented extensively with this raw polyethylene, a plastic rediscovered in the 1930s, eventually developing a “Material of the Future” he dubbed “Poly-T,” short for “Polyethylene-Tupper.”

Tupper then molded lightweight containers from his strong yet flexible plastic. When combined with his patented “nonsnap” lid, the containers seemed poised to transform the American kitchen, replacing heavy, breakable glass and ceramic jars. Home magazines and the Museum of Modern Art in New York lauded Tupper’s products as exemplars of streamlined modern design. But Tupper had trouble finding a niche in the overcrowded market for household products. Then in 1949 he noticed that many mail orders for Tupperware came from people who then resold the items at in-home demonstrations—a growing sales method for companies like Avon, which had started using women to peddle their wares. Through questionnaires Tupper identified several top sellers, including Brownie Wise, a divorced secretary from Detroit raising a son on her own. After she moved to Florida in 1950, Wise’s “Patio Parties” for Tupperware became so successful that she was soon managing a team of other saleswomen. Tupper was impressed. Just a year later he pulled all his containers from retail outlets and set up a new division of his company, headed by Wise, to distribute Tupperware solely through in-home sales.

The “home party plan” Wise developed allowed middle- and working-class women to gain business skills and additional household income while enjoying an enlarged social circle. They gave live demonstrations of the airtight seal (the “burp” soon rebranded as a “whisper”) to convince party attendees that Tupperware was the ideal product for their kitchens, one that would fulfill a desire for consumption and thrift. Wise used creative methods to recruit and inspire her sales force, including bringing a lump of black polyethylene slag nicknamed “Poly” to rallies. Dealers would close their eyes and rub this strange talisman, wishing for determination and success. In 1954 Wise buried prizes all over the Tupperware grounds in Orlando, Florida, setting women into a frenzy of digging for mink coats, diamond rings, and toy Cadillacs (to be exchanged for real cars). Though Tupperware sales skyrocketed, friction developed between the two halves of the company. Tupper, who continued to oversee product development and manufacturing in Massachusetts, disapproved of Wise’s lavish incentives and her immense popularity with the media. In 1958 Tupper dismissed Wise with one year’s salary; the same year, he sold his company for $16 million, eventually retiring to Costa Rica. Wise worked for other direct sales companies until her own retirement in the 1970s but never regained the status she had enjoyed at Tupperware.

Despite this shakeup, Tupperware remained an important supplier of quality housewares throughout the 20th century. And the brand is still going strong in the digital age, despite the advent of super-cheap, disposable plastics. In addition to traditional in-home parties, you can now buy Tupperware at online “parties,” through individual dealers’ websites, and directly from the company. According to the corporate website, a Tupperware party starts every 2.2 seconds somewhere in the world. One of these is Dixie’s Tupperware Party, a one-woman comedy starring Dixie Longate, the Southern-fried alter ego of actor Kris Andersson. In 2001, while unemployed in Los Angeles, Andersson took up a dare from a friend to sell Tupperware in 1950s drag. His parties were hits, and Andersson soon became one of the nation’s top-performing individual dealers. Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise probably never imagined a saleslady quite like Dixie, but in true American tradition the culture that surrounds Tupperware is as innovative and flexible as the products themselves.

Art historian Jane E. Boyd, Ph.D., studies the history and visual culture of technology, science, and medicine in the 18th and 19th centuries.