Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Some say Earl Silas Tupper was the inspiration for Ralph Kramden’s “Chef of the Future.” That could be. Like Ralph, Earl was born into poverty but wanted to become a millionaire someday. Unlike the boy from Bensonhurst, Earl was born in Berlin, New Hampshire and grew up in a small, rural Massachusetts town, where he worked in his parents’ nursery before becoming a tree surgeon and going broke. The fact is Earl spent most of his time drawing inventions in his ever-present notebooks.
His pipe dream was to market his ideas to the masses. Things like: nautical-themed tie racks; self-sharpening scissors; fish-powered boats; a cruelty-free animal trap; an underwater mirror; a gutter that recycled ice cream back into its cone; a combo comb and nail file disguised as a fountain pen that you could clip on to your shirt pocket (presumably alongside your ball point pens and slide rule) and whip out at the drop of a pompadour; and, after an emergency appendectomy, an instrument that would allow surgeons to perform scar-less appendectomies—the offending vestigial organ was removed via the anus. Earl even had some “special” inventions for the ladies: a garter belt that wouldn’t slide down your leg; a corset that streamlined your figure; a slave necklace; and an Egyptian-dancing-girl waist ring.
Although Earl sold some of this stuff through magazine ads, the world—much to his surprise—was definitely not beating a path to his door. Clearly, Earl was someone who needed a real job, badly, and what could be more real than going into plastics? 1 Just because Earl took a day job working for a plastics manufacturer didn’t mean that he gave up daydreaming though. There must be a way, he thought, to put all those polyethylene pellets to use. (The main function of polyethylene, or Poly-T to those in the know, was to insulate radar and radio equipment; the pellets that were leftover were treated as waste material.)
Working in total secrecy (you never know who is watching), ‘Daydreamer Believer’ Earl Tupper, focusing on food storage, experimented month after month—varying temperatures, increasing and decreasing pressure, modifying and molding the Poly-T—until he had designed and fabricated lots of lightweight, flexible, translucent pastel-colored plastic containers.
In 1945 he formed Tupper Plastics and, after a close encounter with a paint can, reworked his initial concept and came up with a patented lid that made his new containers (one dubbed ‘the wonder bowl’) air and watertight.
“In contrast with prior constructions, Mr. Tupper has devised an improved non-snapping and noiseless closure that is attachable to the lip of a container by a simple hand manipulation and is removable there from by a peeling-off procedure,” a local paper heralded.
The mags were bowled over by Tupperware. Time noted that a hospital for the mentally ill liked ’em ’cause they didn’t make a racket when the patients threw them on the floor. Not only that, they didn’t break or chip. House Beautiful thought they were “fine art for 39 cents.” Tupperware was “better by far than can or jar,” or, for that matter, tin foil, shower caps or wet clothes. “[It] locked in freshness”—leftovers would stay fresh for days, weeks, months, years—perhaps forever. Anything was possible in post-war America.
The only problem was: Scarcely anyone, in those pre-blister-pack-child-safe-tamper-proof days, could quite figure out how to fit the paint-can-inspired lid on the bowl properly (not even the mail order catalogue customers, who received instructions with their orders). The seal, it seems, was a little tricky; the container had to be “burped” to expel the air. Earl’s creations, piled high on retail displays, just gathered dust.
Enter Brownie Wise.
Brownie’s mother was a hat maker and union organizer in rural Georgia and, alas, one of those women that spent more time on the job than in the home. As a result, Brownie was raised pretty much by a cousin. She married at twenty-four but not wisely. Two working examples: (1) Her abusive, alcoholic husband once threw battery acid at his own mother, missing but burning a hole in her Plymouth; (2) he was MIA during their brief marriage and DUI during an auto accident, which injured Brownie so badly that she was unable to care for their little boy.
By the time she was twenty-seven, Brownie was a divorced, single parent with no money, no job and no prospects. Undaunted, she put herself through secretarial school at night and got a job to support herself and her young son.
One day, destiny, disguised as a door-to-door salesman for Stanley Home products (vacs, pots, pans, etc.) came a-knockin’. 2 Brownie took one look at the salesman’s act and knew she could do better. She joined Stanley, starting out as a part-timer but soon graduating to distributor status.
One of her coworkers showed her some of The Earl’s products, and the two of them agreed that proper demos—just like the ones they were doing at Stanley—were in order. 3 Soon they were selling so much Tupperware via Patio Parties (more than Detroit’s largest department store) that the home office sent someone to find out how exactly they were doing it.
In 1950 Brownie moved to Florida with her eleven-year-old son and sold so much Tupperware that the company was unable to supply her properly. She called to complain, characteristically insisting on speaking directly to the Man himself. Her conversation with The Earl led to an amiable, if bizarre, face-to-face meeting.
Brownie put it plainly: Withdraw Tupperware from the retailers and distribute it exclusively through my parties. The Earl agreed, naming Brownie head of the newly formed Tupperware Home Parties Division (with headquarters in Kissimme, Florida). 4
If we build the people, they’ll build the business was Brownie’s mantra, and she did, and they did. (They being drivers-license-less, suburban housewives, who were all but shackled to their kitchens and 1.7 kids: If they were going to have a social life it had better be within walking distance.)
The United States’ suburban population was growing four times faster than the general population and consumer spending was well on its way to becoming conspicuous consumption. Now that the war against fascism had been won, the war against disposable income could begin. Leading the way was household-related spending, or spending on ‘stuff’ to fill up the shiny, new, G.I. loan-financed houses that the Greatest Generation, recently returned from the Good War, now called ‘home.’
While the ‘mad men’ deluded consumers into thinking that they needed and/or wanted ‘stuff,’ other creative types developed ‘credit cards’ (see CREDIT CARDS).
A true forward-thinker, Brownie understood that her consumers could also be her sales force and redefined the concept of door-to-door selling accordingly. She established the Tupperware party as the successor of the sewing circle and quilting bee and, in effect, combined socializing with picking up some ‘pin money.’ (Some women threw three parties a day—breakfast, lunch and dinner.)
As Tupperlady Sylvia Boyd put it, “The era and the business were made for each other. We didn’t have a car to get around and so we sat all day and took care of our kids. So a Tupperware party was the social function. It was the way to get away from the kids for a few hours during the week.”
Hard charging and hard working Brownie slept with her typewriter, so she could keep in touch via her newsletter: “Nola is making hey-hey this week on a fun leave from Poly-T Parties…and here’s news to warm the heart—Norma Kelly’s husband has just gotten home from the South Pacific after a year’s absence, which is by way of explaining the glow Norma gives off these days.”
Selling is salvation, Brownie preached. Sisterhood is powerful, but selling to sisters is profitable. Sitting pretty in pink (her favorite color) in a peacock-shaped wicker chair, the flamboyant VP presided over her growing empire: two hundred dealers the first year and nine thousand three years later.
She conjured up the ‘Jubilee’ (a series of three-to-five-day, over-the-top sales conferences held on the one-thousand-acre, well-landscaped grounds of the Florida headquarters) and acted as Mistress of Ceremonies. The two thousand attendees attended twelve-hour working sales sessions, self-help seminars and motivational speeches. Fun and games were front-and-center at these circus-like affairs. There were prizes galore: mink stoles, diamond rings, TV sets, home freezers, silver tea services and Cadillacs. Costumes were a must, and games and sing-alongs were topped off with a candlelit graduation ceremony.
To most of the Tupperladies at the Jubilee, the glamorous Brownie Wise was a star, a real rags to riches, Horatio Alger-type, who not only overcame hard times (a lousy marriage, single parenthood, financial troubles and bad luck), but also managed to climb right past the glass ceiling up the corporate ladder.
When the ‘mad men’ were called in to ramp up Tupperware branding, they agreed that Brownie, who would soon be named Business Woman of the Year and First Lady of Plastics, should be the face of Tupperware—like Betty Crocker, only real.
Indeed her face was the first female one to appear on the cover of Business Week. The April 17, 1954 article had many laudatory things to say about her, including the observation that Earl Tupper “...is president of the sales company; actually Brownie Wise has just about carte blanche to run the organization.”
Well, as it turns out, not quite blanche.
Although it’s hard to know precisely when The Earl’s relationship with Brownie Wise began to deteriorate, April 17, 1954—the date the Business Week cover story came out—is a good guess.
It’s not hard to imagine what The Earl was thinking as he read it either; something like: Has everyone forgotten that Tupperware was MY invention? Who is this woman to hog the spotlight and go around giving interviews to every Tom, Dick and Harry.
All those gimmicks, especially those dumb Jubilees, I don’t even want to know what they're like, and I'm glad I never went to one. A bunch of silly women running around dressed in godknowswhat, probably, singing that dumb song and digging mink stoles out of the dirt. And to what end: Landscaping costs are staggering, and what about other questionable expenditures? I asked her to send the books, but she refused.
And as far as the dog bowl is concerned, I have witnesses. There are people who saw her using a Tupperware ‘wonder bowl’ for her dog’s water. I mean: Come on.
Their correspondence, once cordial, became curt, accusatory and acrimonious. By 1957 he had stopped taking her calls, and she had stopped calling.
Besides, the truth was, he wanted to sell, make a bundle and get out. He had offers. All he had to do was lose her, the public face of his privately held company.
Once he got rid of Brownie, the deal would be a cinch, and so in late January 1958, he flew down to Florida, fired her and left her with almost no severance. As if that weren’t enough, he purged her from the company’s records: All photographs of her were removed from the premises, and the remaining six hundred copies of her “inspirational” autobiography, Best Wishes, were buried in a pit behind the HQ. A chain of drugstores bought him out for sixteen million dollars and that was the end of that—sort of.
Earl Silas Tupper divorced his wife, gave up his U.S. citizenship and moved to South America. In 1976 he was voted into the Plastics Hall of Fame (the same year as Barry Manilow), and in 1983, the year the patent on his Tupperware lid expired, he did.
Though devastated (and fundless), Brownie Wise managed to form Cinderella International, her own direct sales organization, which sold cleaning products and beauty supplies for men. Not one Tupperlady followed her.
In Tupperlady Lavon Weber’s opinion: “…they were smart enough to know that Tupperware was where their bread and butter was. And at that time Tupperware was doing so well that you didn’t really want to rock the boat.”
Brownie Wise’s new company folded after a year. She refused to ever discuss Tupperware, became withdrawn and died in 1992.
Brownie and The Earl are long gone, but what they created lives on: “Nine out of ten American homes have at least some Tupperware,” and “every 2.5 seconds there’s a Tupperware party somewhere in the world.”
1 “Plastic is any organic material with the ability to flow into a desired shape when heat and pressure are applied to it and retain shape once they are withdrawn.” Circa 1869 an American inventor named John Wesley Hyatt invented the first important plastic: celluloid. It’s still used today to make ping-pong balls.
2 A tradition that went back to 1913 and the Fuller Brush man; a company, where Stanly Beveridge, founder of Stanly Home Products, apprenticed.
3 Madame C.J. Walker pioneered the concept of the hostess party plan. The child of former slaves and “the first female self-made millionaire in (American) history,” Walker conceived and built a cosmetics empire in the first two decades of the twentieth century and sold Wearever aluminum pots and pans in the 1930’s.
4 The Earl and Brownie were both attracted to Florida but for different reasons. Tupper liked the idea of lots of cheap land and non-union workers, whereas Wise liked the sunshine and the idea of her sales women bringing their families there for a vacation while they attended sales seminars.
Business Week; “How Brownie Wise Whoops Up Sales,” Mar. 4, 1954.
Clarke, Alison J.; Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America.
The Columbia Encyclopedia. “Plastics.” www.credoreference.com.
Kahn-Leavitt, Laurie; Tupperware! (PBS Film).
Kealing, Bob; Tupperware Unsealed: Brownie Wise, Earl Tupper, and the Home Party Pioneers.
Vogel, Carol; “Bowls that Burp,” New York Times, Feb. 8, 2004.
“In contrast with...”; Clarke, 41
“...fine art...”; Ibid, 42
“...better by far...”; Ibid, 46
“the Tupperware party...”; Ibid, 4
“The era and the...”; Kahn-Leavitt, DVD
“Nola is making...”; Kealing, 31
“...is president...”; Business Week
“...they were smart...”; Kahn-Leavitt, DVD
“Nine out of ten...”; Tupperware!, DVD
“...every 2.5 seconds...”; Ibid
at 8:30 AM