Tupperware, the Burp Heard Around the World

On a shelf in our kitchen cupboard are several tall plastic “glasses.” There is one each in green, yellow, orange, and brown. On another shelf is an assortment of round plastic storage bowels in yellow and orange. If you are middle aged or older, you will remember those horrible colors of the seventies. But these are not just any plastic kitchenware; they are Tupperware, and antique Tupperware at that. You can still find these particular styles and colors on Ebey.com, but I have no intention of selling them, at least not until I see them featured on Antiques Roadshow.

Memories of purchasing them at a yard sale in Mundelein, Illinois twenty years ago popped into my mind, when I noticed that today was the birthday of Earl Silas Tupper, the inventor of Tupperware. Not only did he invent what is as much a symbol of the inventive and entrepreneurial spirit that made America great, but he was also instrumental in popularizing what is referred to as “party-plan” marketing.

Mr. Tupper’s first business venture, Tupper Tree Doctors, went belly-up in 1936, a victim of the Great Depression. To keep afloat, he took a job with DuPont Chemical Company in 1937. While at DuPont, Tupper began experimenting with pieces of inflexible, black polyethylene slag, a byproduct of oil refining. He left DuPont after only one year to found Earl S. Tupper Company.

Tupper developed a way to turn a waste product into a clear, tough, flexible plastic that could be used to produce an unlimited variety of useful products. Tupper’s new company designed and produced plastic products for the military during World War II. After the war, he began designing and marketing plastic products for the rapidly expanding consumer market.

Perhaps what was to establish Tupperware’s place in twentieth-century Americana was Earl Tupper’s invention of the “Tupper Seal,” modeled after the lid on paint cans. It provided a liquid proof, air tight, flexible lid.

At first, Mr. Tupper tried selling his Tupperware products in department stores. That idea failed. Most people simply could not understand how to use the Tupper Seal lid without a demonstration. What do you mean; you have to “burp” the lid? The solution was suggested by Ms. Brownie Wise.

Ms. Wise began selling Tupperware through parties in her home. It wasn’t long before she was selling more Tupperware in her living room than Mr. Tupper was selling in department stores. In 1948, Earl S. Tupper and Brownie Wise joined forces. Tupperware was withdrawn from the department stores to be sold solely through home parties, a marketing plan pioneered by Stanley Home Products. Ms. Wise had previously worked as a sales representative for Stanley Home Products.

Both Tupper and Wise became legends in their time. Ms. Wise was the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week in April, 1954. She was a pioneer in the struggle for equality for women in the male-dominated world of business. Many feel that it was Wise who made Tupperware the success it became.

Wise left Tupperware in 1958. Some have argued that she was forced out by Earl Tupper, who would not allow women to advance beyond party hosts. As Ms. Wise’s influence in the corporation grew, Tupper became more frustrated with, and perhaps felt threatened by, a woman in a position of leadership.

After Brownie Wise’s departure, Tupper sold Tupperware to Rexall Drug Company for $16 million (approximately $120 million today), divorced his wife, bought an island in Costa Rica, and gave up his U.S. citizenship to avoid taxes. He died on October 5, 1983.

After leaving Tupperware in 1958, Wise co-founded three direct sales companies and dabbled in real estate, but success eluded her. She passed away in December, 1992.

Earl Silas Tupper’s and Brownie Wise’s legacies live on. Tupperware is still sold primarily through home parties in 100 countries. The “party-plan” marketing method developed by Ms. Wise is still used by such well-known companies as Avon and Mary Kay Cosmetics.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creation, and always live under the mercy.

For more information on the little-known Brownie Wise, see Tupperware Unsealed: The Story of Brownie Wise by Bob Kealing (2008). You can watch a ten minute video of Bob Kealing discussing Ms. Wise and his book on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KfqkUGNVHlw

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