Art in the Everyday: Tupperware — An American Design Classic


On a chilly autumn day in October 2010, I found myself at a Tupperware party in Farmingdale, Long Island. Sitting in the living room of Anthony Portelli, a well-coiffed 40-something Italian man, I’m surrounded by a crowd of mostly middle-aged women, some teenage girls and a few grandmothers. All of them, dressed in varying shades of beige and powder blue, look quite at place in the suburban, tastefully lit interior. Also not quite out of place is the collection of various plastic containers spread out across a fold-out table at the head of the room or the cold, metal chairs that are lined up in front of it.

There are a few people at this small gathering, however, who do not look like your typical Tupperware party-goers. One of them is a 49-year-old woman sitting in the back of the room in a large, cushy armchair. Observing the group of suburban housewives with her heavily mascaraed eyes, she wears a leopard-print jersey t-shirt, a short denim skirt and a pair of sassy black leather boots. This is Wendy Spadaro, the executive director at Shoreline Enterprises, a Tupperware franchise based in Redondo Beach, California. She has been involved in selling Tupperware for the past 20 years and is in Long Island hoping to gain some insight into the East Coast Tupperware lifestyle.


Illustration by Maxwell Tielman

The other person who is even more shockingly out of place is the Tupperware saleswoman herself. This is Aunt Barbara, a drag queen character created by the actor Bobby Suchan. At least six-foot-five in heels, Aunt Barbara towers above the crowd of women sitting before her. She is covered head to toe in dark bronzer, her lips painted a shocking hot pink and her turquoise eyelids weighed down by plumes of artificial lashes. She wears a vintage yellow and black tunic dress, a diamond-encrusted letter “B” on her chest and a pair of dark pantyhose that have ripped down the sides of her legs. To top it all off, Bobby has added a comically oversized black wig, further enforcing Aunt Barbara’s signature kitsch-chic aesthetic. Known for her high-pitched giggle and 1960s grandmother drawl, Aunt Barbara is able to sell her products through laughter.

“When I roll out of bed at the crack of dawn, there are two things I reach for,” Aunt Barbara squeaks, her faux-drunken voice slurring slightly. “A home pregnancy test and my Tupperware Quick-Shake container. I go to the kitchen, throw in a little Alba 77, some half and half, and I fill it all the way up to the top with vodka.” The crowd of beige-clad women, so rigid in its composure just minutes ago, bursts into laughter. They are no match for Aunt Barbara’s shameless, self-deprecating brand of humor.

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Prior to selling Tupperware, Bobby Suchan was the assistant director of residential services at a Long Island organization specializing in the care and education of mentally challenged children. While he found this work endlessly rewarding, there was not much humor in it. He took up Tupperware selling as a side project after he had seen his sister give it a try. Soon after, he was earning a six-figure income and was able to devote his life full time to Aunt Barbara and his Tupperware business. He is now the number one Tupperware salesman in North America.

“Tupperware’s not interested in resumés,” Suchan tells me, loosely quoting from one of the Tupperware CEO’s many catchphrases. “We don’t want to know what you’ve done. We want to know what you can do. We’re not interested in the past, we’re interested in your future.” This, as Suchan enthusiastically points out, is “huge for women who don’t have high school diplomas, who perhaps don’t even speak English. It’s really about empowering women. That’s what Tupperware’s about.”

The look of the traditional Tupperware party, its products and its salesforce may have changed dramatically in the 60 years since the company’s inception, but its message has remained the same. Ever since Earl Tupper started making his patented plastic containers and the legendary Brownie Wise hosted the first Tupperware party, the company has maintained an overarching philosophy of thrift, entrepreneurship and social and economic equality.

• • •

Tupperware is so ubiquitous today that it’s often easy to forget that it all started with one man: Earl Silas Tupper. Born on a farm in New Hampshire, Earl Tupper came from relatively limited means. His parents switched occupations regularly, which forced his family to move fairly often. Although Tupper’s parents ran businesses ranging from small farms to plant nurseries, they were more than content to maintain their modest lifestyle, and Earl was often irritated by his parents’ lack of ambition and entrepreneurial zeal. He was incredibly ambitious and frequently took it upon himself to expand his family’s various businesses. In 1917, at the young age of 10, Earl began selling his family’s farm produce door-to-door. As a teenager, he built a greenhouse from which he sold geraniums.

Despite an intense drive to succeed entrepreneurially, Tupper struggled in school. After he barely graduated from high school in 1925, he went into business as a tree surgeon. This would remain his career for some time as he married and began to raise a family. Despite working with plants for most of his life, Earl’s true ambition was to one day become a successful inventor. He fancied himself the next Henry Ford or Thomas Edison and hoped to one day “Tupperize” the world and become a millionaire from his own inventions.

An endlessly inventive man, Tupper kept fastidious journals in which he chronicled not only his invention ideas, but also his expenses, daily tasks and exercise regimen. Throughout his career as a tree surgeon and struggling inventor, Tupper sketched hundreds of potential designs. Some more successful than others, his inventions included a fish-powered canoe, a non-drip ice cream cone, a multipurpose comb/dagger and a muscle-building corset.

When the Great Depression struck the world, Tupper’s business suffered tremendously. In 1936, he was forced to close his doors and declare bankruptcy. To support his family, Tupper soon took a job at the Viscaloid plant, the plastics division of the DuPont chemical company. After working there for about a year, Tupper developed a huge interest in plastics. Hoping that the new material would provide him with the success he longed for, he purchased several used molding machines from DuPont and quickly went into production. In 1938, Earl opened Tupper Plastics, which produced, among other things, plastic containers for soap and cigarettes.

Despite being cheap and easy to reproduce, plastic products of the time had several drawbacks. To begin with, the material was often quite brittle and would crack or chip when dropped or handled badly. When exposed to certain household liquids such as oils or vinegars, plastics were known to peel and even disintegrate entirely. To top it off, many plastics were toxic, malodorous and even combustible.

This is why, in 1945, after receiving a shipment of pure polyethylene pellets from DuPont, Tupper was eager to try out the material. Later dubbed “Poly-T, The Material of the Future,” polyethylene had the distinction of being lightweight, non-toxic and extremely durable. The material was originally created during World War II as a wartime material, but after the war, chemical companies were trying desperately to find peacetime applications for it. Earl Tupper was up for the challenge.

Later in the 1940s, after much trial and error, Tupper unveiled his first polyethylene creation, The Wonder Bowl, thus introducing the world to Tupperware. The Wonder Bowl was wondrous for numerous reasons. To begin with, the translucent polyethylene it was molded from was perfect for food storage. The bowl also featured the amazing “Tupper Seal,” which Earl later patented. Based on the lid of a paint can, the plastic seal was revolutionary in that it fit exactly around the container, allowing it to be completely airtight and leak free. In later demonstrations, liquid-filled Wonder Bowls were often thrown across rooms, never spilling a drop of their cargo.


Above image: A Tupperware advertisement from the January 25, 1963 issue of LIFE Magazine

Tupperware products were hailed by housewives and design-aficionados alike for their ease of use, functionality and beauty. In 1947, the home magazine House Beautiful published an article on Tupperware titled “Fine Art for 39¢.”

The article, which tried to position Tupperware as a legitimate replacement for glass, porcelain or crystal tableware, refers to the plastic products as “art objects” and calls them “as good as any sculpture.” One paragraph of the article reads,

If you have never touched polyethylene, we need to tell you that it has the appearance of great fragility and delicacy — yet has great strength. It has the fingering qualities of jade, but at the same time reminds you of alabaster and mother of pearl. Held up to the light, it becomes opalescent and translucent and has an interesting, new ability to transfer light. So these bowls look like art objects — even before you know what they do.

While shelter magazines such as House Beautiful admired Tupperware’s comparability to more traditional materials despite its newfangled novelty, art institutions such as MoMA and the Detroit Institute of Arts praised Tupperware because of its new machine aesthetic. To them, Tupperware embodied all that was good about contemporary design. It was extremely functional and rational but elegant at the same time, beautiful in its restrained simplicity. In 1949, the Detroit Institute of Arts showcased Tupperware products in their “Exhibition for Modern Living.” Instead of showcasing the most popular designs of the time, the exhibit featured designs that were pointedly industrially produced in their aesthetic, free from any extraneous ornament or functionality. Later, in 1956, New York’s Museum of Modern Art inducted Tupperware into its permanent collection and displayed it in a similar exhibit of contemporary design.

Despite Tupperware’s success with the media and arts institutions, the company had yet to break into the market in any successful way. During its early years, Tupperware was sold in hardware and department stores and had an independent outpost on Fifth Avenue in New York City. However, most likely because of its unfamiliar material and design, Tupperware had trouble getting off the ground and initially did poorly in sales to begin. It wasn’t until a woman named Brownie Wise entered the picture that Tupperware really began to take off.

Brownie Wise, like Earl Tupper, came from a relatively modest background. She was born in 1913 in rural Georgia, and lived mostly with her cousins because of her mother’s lack of steady employment. When she was 23, she married and had a child with a man named Robert Wise. Shortly thereafter, though, the two divorced, and Brownie was forced to seek employment. Decent paying jobs were hard to come by at the time for a woman of Brownie’s standing, but she was quick-witted, charismatic and diligent and eventually started selling Stanley home products at parties. A one-woman business and advertising agency, Brownie quickly became very successful. She was known to sign her letters “Be Wise, Stanley-ize!”

(Brownie Wise image via Spiegel.de.)

In the late 1940s, Brownie was introduced to Tupperware products. An immediate fan, Brownie was cognizant of the product’s need to be demonstrated. She quickly ordered a bundle of Tupperware products and began selling them among her Stanley goods at home parties. Her enthusiasm for Tupperware and the product’s ability to be showcased led her to entirely devote her sales to the product. It wasn’t long before Brownie’s incredible talents attracted the attention of one Earl S. Tupper. Shocked at Brownie’s ability to sell his products through social gatherings, Tupper invited her to join his company. In 1951, Tupper and Wise formed Tupper Home Parties with Brownie Wise heading it as president of sales. After this point, home parties became Tupperware’s exclusive method of selling.


Above image: An old cover of the Tupperware catalog

From this point on, Tupperware’s sales boomed. The home-party model proved to be incredibly successful in 1950s suburbia. In addition to taking advantage of women’s social networks, it provided them with a place to socialize in a safe, familiar environment.

As president, Brownie established a massive salesforce and began training thousands of young protégés to host Tupperware home parties. By the mid-1950s, Tupperware employed roughly 20,000 women. At the same time, the Tupperware Corporation had moved to Florida where Brownie worked tirelessly on building the company’s wonderland of a headquarters. Designed to be a Mecca for Tupperware saleswomen, the vast headquarters was more of a theme park than a place of business. Situated in the midst of Florida’s tropical farmland, the massive piece of land featured not only offices but also party spaces, an auditorium and a massive pond that Brownie herself baptized with polyethylene pellets. The entire place brimmed with self-proclaimed “Tupper Magic.”

In addition to providing Tupperware’s zealous followers with a wondrous place of worship, Brownie was adamant about giving them endless forms of motivation. The Tupperware Company not only hosted yearly “Jubilees,” themed parties thrown for the entire salesforce, but gave out a shocking array of magnificent prizes. As part of Tupperware’s elite salesforce, women had the opportunity to win everything from jewelry to cars. In a game hosted at the Tupperware headquarters titled “Digging for Gold,” saleswomen were invited to literally dig into the ground, unearthing prizes such as toaster ovens, diamond rings and fur coats. As if this weren’t enough, Brownie also had a monthly newspaper published for all her employees. Titled Tupperware Sparks, the publication showcased notable saleswomen and Tupperware events. For people who might never dream of seeing their names in the newspaper, this was an incredible treat and gave Tupperware salespeople something to strive toward and be proud of.

If Tupperware could be seen as a religion, Brownie Wise would certainly be its pope. People absolutely adored her and her infectious enthusiasm. Her popularity was so vast that she became nearly synonymous with Tupperware the product and brand. In 1954, Brownie became the first woman to grace the cover of Business Week magazine. At her height, Brownie seemed to be nearly invincible. Unfortunately, this was far from the case.

After getting wind of some of Brownie’s more extravagant expenditures, Earl Tupper flew down to Florida to confront her. Until this point, Tupper had yet to step foot into his own company’s lavish headquarters, preferring to stay as far from the limelight as humanly possible. He was not pleased with what he found. Brownie’s “if we build the people, they’ll build the company” philosophy didn’t seem to fly with Tupper’s frugal sensibilities. Despite all of Brownie’s success at nurturing his company, Earl was livid with her unapproved spending and immediately fired her. Suddenly, it was as if she had never existed. If there ever was a Brownie Wise working for Tupperware, none of the company’s employees would acknowledge it. For a stretch of time after her departure, Brownie seemed to be completely erased from the company’s history.

Today, the Tupperware Corporation has welcomed Brownie’s image back onto its walls, and her memory lingers in the minds of Tupperware salespeople. The legacy that Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise created together, one steeped in the notions of functional design and entrepreneurial independence, continues to live on to this day. “To me, [it’s] like, Baseball, Apple Pie, and Tupperware,” Wendy Spadaro tells me. It’s true. After just 60 years on the market, Tupperware has become an American icon, a symbol for our country’s paradoxical fascination with thrift and material goods.

• • •

“Who can tell me what a Tupper-monial is?” Aunt Barbara asks, her shadowed eyes scanning the audience.

“When somebody talks about how wonderful Tupperware is?” a woman offers.

“No,” Aunt Barbara squeaks, “but I like that! It’s the story of why the Tupperware lady started selling the plastic crap in the first place. What the hell happened to her that she’s got to carry this crap around in the back of her Volkswagen Passat? Okay. Here’s my tale of woe. Picture it. It’s 1978. If you say you weren’t born, I’ll smack you.” She launches into an epic (and completely fabricated) soliloquy about how, after her husband Morris leaves her for a one-legged nurse, she is forced to fend for herself. “There I was,” Aunt Barbara continues, “I was a single, attractive, middle-aged woman. I had a split-level high ranch on the water in Oceanside to pay for. How was I going to do it? How was I going to make ends meet?” She pauses and lets the question hang in the air. “Prostitution.”

Although the style of selling Tupperware has shifted over time — nowadays most salespeople need to have some kind of comical shtick — the basic blueprint for Tupperware parties and their salespeople have stayed same. Like when the company first started, Tupperware is all about saving families’ money and giving people jobs. In today’s economically troubled times, Tupperware is especially relevant. Even more than in the 1950s, Tupperware is proving to be a heavily sought after and respected product. Today an estimated 90% of homes in America own at least one piece of Tupperware, and it’s easy to see why.

• • •

Sources

  • Clarke, Alison. Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America. 1st Ed. Washington: The Smithsonian Press, 1999.
  • Clarke, Alison. “Tupperware: Suburbia, Sociality, and Mass Consumption.” Visions of Suburbia. Ed. Roger Silverstone. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Gordon, Elizabeth. “Fine Art for 39¢.” House Beautiful. October 1947: 131
  • Kahn-Leavitt, Laurie, Dir. Tupperware! WGBH Educational Foundation: 2003, Film.
  • American Experience: Tupperware.” PBS.
Liz

Great piece Max. I remember the little salt and pepper shakers along with the rest of the tupperware we used to pack our food for sailing every weekend. Hard boiled eggs sprinkled with salt from the adorable shaker.

Lauren

This is hilarious/inspiring! I have found that the home party model is a great way to sell things and make those important personal connections with customers that turn them into repeat customers.

Caitlin

This was such an amazing piece, thank you Max! I just went to my first Tupperware party (at the age of 30) a few weeks ago. I didn’t plan to buy anything, but was swayed by the storage containers that claim to prolong the life of my vegetables (always have some go bad before I can eat them when I do a CSA) – I like that the company is committed to innovation, sustainability, and that while still plastic, at least it’s BPA -free. It would be amazing if they could make all of the products recyclable.

Betsy

I love so many things about this post: success growing out of failure, great design, innovation., creative selling, and legacies. Thanks!

Mary

I find myself scouring thrift stores lately for the goldenrod and avocado green stuff from the 70’s and early 80’s. I found two bright orangey/red sandwich containers from the 60’s a few months ago and I was euphoric.

Carly

I really loved this overview of the history of Tupperware. My mother and her love of Tupperware knows no bounds and we both collect vintage pieces from thrift stores and love the early colour palettes! Thank you for this :)

Melissa S.

This is an awesome article! I had no idea the history of Tupperware was so interesting and complicated. It really intrigues me how much they used to gush over plastic. It’s funny to think of someone appreciating what seems to me “plain old plastic” as art and sculpture. It’s so interesting to see things like this from a different perspective!

Marshall

Why did I toss all my mom’s kitchen stuff? I have her Tupperware handolier canister from the Tupperware Millionare Line. I keep coffee in it. It’s colorless, tranclucent, and has a nice greasy feel. I love it and I hope it won’t get brittle.

Rene

“She-who-dies-with-the-most-Tupperware” that’s me! — My prized piece is a mysterious looking container (avocado green, so it must be from the ’70s). It has a domed top and a “lift” in it that drains pickles/olives of their juices and makes them easier to obtain. Tupperware — so smart. I have pie keepers, meat thawers, jello molds, little round containers, big square containers, milk keepers, sandwich and celery boxes. I feel as though I’m saving a bit of Americana. This is a great story, thank you!

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