09 November 2014
Trademarked food-storage products that changed
the way Americans viewed plastic products and created a model
for selling products in consumers homes.
The people behind the invention:
Earl S. Tupper (1907-1983), founder of Tupperware
Brownie Wise, the creator of the vast home sales network for
Morison Cousins (1934-2001), a designer hired by Tupperware
to modernize its products in the early 1990’s
“The Wave of the Future”?
Relying on a belief that plastic was the wave of the future and
wanting to improve on the newest refrigeration technology, Earl S.
Tupper, who called himself “a ham inventor and Yankee trader,”
created an empire of products that changed America’s kitchens.
Tupper, a self-taught chemical engineer, began working at Du Pont
in the 1930’s. This was a time of important developments in the
field of polymers and the technology behind plastics. Wanting to
experiment with this new material yet unable to purchase the
needed supplies, Tupper went to his employer for help. Because of
the limited availability of materials, major chemical companies
had been receiving all the raw goods for plastic production. Although
Du Pont would not part with raw materials, the company
was willing to let Tupper have the slag.
Polyethylene slag was a black, rock-hard, malodorous waste
product of oil refining. It was virtually unusable. Undaunted,
Tupper developed methods to purify the slag. He then designed
an injection molding machine to form bowls and other containers
out of his “Poly-T.” Tupper did not want to call the substance plastic
because of a public distrust of that substance. In 1938, he
founded the Tupper Plastics Company to pursue his dream. It was
during those first years that he formulated the design for the famous
Refrigeration techniques had improved tremendously during
the first part of the twentieth century. The iceboxes in use prior to
the 1940’s were inconsistent in their interior conditions and were
usually damp inside because of melting of the ice. In addition, the
metal, glass, or earthenware food storage containers used during
the first half of the century did not seal tightly and allowed food to
stay moist. Iceboxes allowed mixing of food odors, particularly evident
with strong-smelling items such as onions and fish.
In contrast to iceboxes, the electric refrigerators available starting
in the 1940’s maintained dry interiors and low temperatures. This
change in environment resulted in food drying out and wilting.
Tupper set out to alleviate this problem through his plastic containers.
The key to Tupper’s solution was his containers’ seal. He took
his design from paint can lids and inverted it. This tight seal created
a partial vacuum that protected food from the dry refrigeration process
and kept food odors sealed within containers.
In 1942, Tupper bought his first manufacturing plant, in Farnumsville,
Massachusetts. There he continued to improve on his designs.
In 1945, Tupper introduced Tupperware, selling it through
hardware and department stores as well as through catalog sales.
Tupperware products were made of flexible, translucent plastic.
Available in frosted crystal and five pastel colors, the new containers
were airtight and waterproof. In addition, they carried a lifetime
warranty against chipping, cracking, peeling, and breaking in normal
noncommercial use. Early supporters of Tupperware included
the American Thermos Bottle Company, which purchased seven
million nesting cups, and the Tek Corporation, which ordered fifty
thousand tumblers to sell with toothbrushes.
Even though he benefited from this type of corporate support,
Tupper wanted his products to be for home use. Marketing the new
products proved to be difficult in the early years. Tupperware sat on
hardware and department store shelves, and catalog sales were
nearly nonexistent. The problem appeared to involve a basic distrust
of plastic by consumers and an unfamiliarity with how to use
the new products. The product did not come with instructions on
how to seal the containers or descriptions of how the closed container
protected the food within. BrownieWise, an early direct seller
and veteran distributor of Stanley Home Products, stated that it
took her several days to understand the technology behind the seal
and the now-famous Tupperware “burp,” the sound made when air
leaves the container as it seals.
Wise and two other direct sellers, Tom Damigella and Harvey
Hollenbush, found the niche for selling Tupperware for daily use—
home sales.Wise approached Tupper with a home party sales strategy
and detailed how it provided a relaxed atmosphere in which to
learn about the products and thus lowered sales resistance. In April,
1951, Tupper took his product off store shelves and hired Wise to
create a new direct selling system under the name of Tupperware
Home Parties, Inc.
Home sales had already proved to be successful for the Fuller
Brush Company and numerous encyclopedia publishers, yet Brownie
Wise wanted to expand the possibilities. Her first step was to found
a campus-like headquarters in Kissimmee, Florida. There, Tupper and
a design department worked to develop new products, and Tupperware
Home Parties, Inc., under Wise’s direction, worked to develop
new incentives for Tupperware’s direct sellers, called hostesses.
Wise added spark to the notion of home demonstrations. “Parties,”
as they were called, included games, recipes, giveaways, and other
ideas designed to help housewives learn how to use Tupperware
products. The marketing philosophy was to make parties appealing
events at which women could get together while their children were
in school. This fit into the suburban lifestyle of the 1950’s. These parties
offered a nonthreatening means for home sales representatives
to attract audiences for their demonstrations and gave guests a chance
to meet and socialize with their neighbors. Often compared to
the barbecue parties of the 1950’s, Tupperware parties were social,
yet educational, affairs. While guests ate lunch or snacked on desserts,
the Tupperware hostess educated them about the technology
behind the bowls and their seals as well as suggesting a wide variety
of uses for the products. For example, a party might include
recipes for dinner parties, with information provided on how
party leftovers could be stored efficiently and economically with
While Tupperware products were changing the kitchens of America,
they were also changing the women who sold them (almost all the
hosts were women). Tupperware sales offered employment for women
at a time when society disapproved of women working outside the
home. Being a hostess, however, was not a nine-to-five position. The
job allowed women freedom to tailor their schedules to meet family
needs. Employment offered more than the economic incentive of 35
percent of gross sales. Hostesses also learned new skills and developed
self-esteem. An acclaimed mentoring program for new and advancing
employees provided motivational training. Managers came only from
the ranks of hostesses; moving up the corporate ladder meant spending
time selling Tupperware at home parties.
The opportunity to advance offered incentive. In addition, annual
sales conventions were renowned for teaching new marketing
strategies in fun-filled classes. These conventions also gave women
an opportunity to network and establish contacts. These experiences
proved to be invaluable as women entered the workforce in
increasing numbers in later decades.
Expanding Home-Sales Business
The tremendous success of Tupperware’s marketing philosophy
helped to set the stage for other companies to enter home sales.
These companies used home-based parties to educate potential customers
in familiar surroundings, in their own homes or in the
homes of friends. The Mary Kay Cosmetics Company, founded in
1963, used beauty makeovers in the home party setting as its chief
marketing tool. Discovery Toys, founded in 1978, encouraged guests
to get on the floor and play with the toys demonstrated at its home
parties. Both companies extended the socialization aspects found in
In addition to setting the standard for home sales, Tupperware
is also credited with starting the plastic revolution. Early plastics
were of poor quality and cracked or broke easily. This created distrust
of plastic products among consumers. Earl Tupper’s demand
for quality set the stage for the future of plastics. He started with
high-quality resin and developed a process that kept the “Poly-T”
from splitting. He then invented an injection molding machine that
mass-produced his bowl and cup designs. His standards of quality
from start to finish helped other companies expand into plastics.
The 1950’s saw a wide variety of products appear in the improved
material, including furniture and toys. This shift from wood, glass,
and metal to plastic continued for decades.
Maintaining the position of Tupperware within the housewares
market meant keeping current. As more Americans were able to purchase
the newest refrigerators, Tupperware expanded to meet their
needs. The company added new products, improved marketing
strategies, and changed or updated designs. Over the years, Tupperware
added baking items, toys, and home storage containers for such
items as photographs, sewing materials, and holiday ornaments. The
1980’s and 1990’s brought microwaveable products.
As women moved into the work force in great numbers, Tupperware
moved with them. The company introduced lunchtime parties
at the workplace and parties at daycare centers for busy working
parents. Tupperware also started a fund-raising line, in special colors,
that provided organizations with a means to bring in money
while not necessitating full-fledged parties. New party themes developed
around time-saving techniques and health concerns such
as diet planning. Beginning in 1992, customers too busy to attend a
party could call a toll-free number, request a catalog, and be put in
contact with a “consultant,” as “hostesses” now were called.
Another marketing strategy developed out of a public push for
environmentally conscious products. Tupperware consultants stressed
the value of buying food in bulk to create less trash as well as saving
money. To store these increased purchases, the company developed
a new line for kitchen staples called Modular Mates. These stackable
containers came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes to hold everything
from cereal to flour to pasta. They were made of see-through
plastic, allowing the user to see if the contents needed replenishing.
Some consultants tailored parties around ideas to better organize
kitchen cabinets using the new line. Another environmentally conscious
product idea was the Tupperware lunch kit. These kits did
away with the need for throwaway products such as paper plates,
plastic storage bags, and aluminum foil. Lunch kits marketed in
other countries were developed to accommodate the countries’ particular
needs. For example, Japanese designs included chopsticks,
while Latin American styles were designed to hold tortillas.
Tupperware designs have been well received over the years.
Early designs prompted a 1947 edition of House Beautiful to call the
product “Fine Art for 39 cents.” Fifteen of Tupper’s earliest designs
are housed in a permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art
in New York City. Other museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum
of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, also house Tupperware designs.
Tupperware established its own Museum of Historic Food
Containers at its international headquarters in Florida. Despite this
critical acclaim, the company faced a constant struggle to keep
product lines competitive with more accessible products, such as
those made by Rubbermaid, that could be found on the shelves of
local grocery or department stores.
Some of the biggest design changes came with the hiring of
Morison Cousins in the early 1990’s. Cousins, an accomplished designer,
set out to modernize the Tupperware line. He sought to return
to simple, traditional styles while bringing in time-saving aspects.
He changed lid designs to make them easier to clean and
rounded the bottoms of bowls so that every portion could be scooped
out. Cousins also added thumb handles to bowls.
Backed by a knowledgeable sales force and quality product, the
company experienced tremendous growth. Tupperware sales reached
$25 million in 1954. By 1958, the company had grown from seven
distributorships to a vast system covering the United States and
Canada. That same year, BrownieWise left the company, and Tupper
Plastics was sold to Rexall Drug Company for $9 million. Rexall
Drug changed its name to Dart Industries, Inc., in 1969, then merged
with Kraft, Inc., eleven years later to become Dart and Kraft, Inc.
During this time of parent-company name changing, Tupperware
continued to be an important subsidiary. Through the 1960’s and
1970’s, the company spread around the world, with sales inWestern
Europe, the Far East, and Latin America. In 1986, Dart and Kraft,
Inc., split into Kraft, Inc., and Premark International, Inc., of which
Dart (and therefore Tupperware) was a subsidiary. Premark International
included other home product companies such as West
Bend, Precor, and Florida Tile.
By the early 1990’s, annual sales of Tupperware products reached
$1.1 billion. Manufacturing plants in Halls, Tennessee, and Hemingway,
South Carolina, worked to meet the high demand for Tupperware
products in more than fifty countries. Foreign sales accounted
for almost 75 percent of the company’s business. By meeting the
needs of consumers and keeping current with design changes, new
sales techniques, and new products, Tupperware was able to reach
90 percent of America’s homes.
Earl S. Tupper
Born in 1907, Earl Silas Tupper came from a family of go-getters.
His mother, Lulu Clark Tupper, kept a boardinghouse and
took in laundry, while his father, Earnest, ran a small farm and
greenhouse in New Hampshire. The elder Tupper was also a
small-time inventor, patenting a device for stretching out chickens
to make cleaning them easier. Earl absorbed the family’s
taste for invention and enterprise.
Fresh out of high school in 1925, Tupper vowed to turn himself
into a millionaire by the time he was thirty. He started a
landscaping and nursery business in 1928, but the Depression
led his company, Tupper Tree, into bankruptcy in 1936. Tupper
was undeterred. He hired on with Du Pont the next year. Du
Pont taught him a great deal about the chemistry and manufacturing
of plastics, but it did not give him scope to apply his
ideas, so in 1938 he founded the Earl S. Tupper Company. He
continued to work as a contractor for Du Pont to make the
fledgling company profitable, and during World War II the
company made plastic moldings for gas masks and Navy signal
lamps. Finally, in the 1940’s Tupper could devote himself to
his dream—designing plastic food containers, cups, and such
small household conveniences as cases for cigarette packs.
Thanks to aggressive, innovative direct marketing, Tupper’s
kitchenware, Tupperware, became synonymous with plastic
containers during the 1950’s. In 1958 Tupper sold his company
to Rexall for $16 million, having finally realized his youthful
ambition to make himself wealthy through Yankee wit and
hard work. He died in 1983.
See also : Electric refrigerator; Food freezing; Freeze-drying; Microwave
cooking; Plastic; Polystyrene;Tupperware;Teflon