Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America / Edition 1

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From Wonder Bowls to Ice-Tup molds to Party Susans, Tupperware has become an icon of suburban living. Tracing the fortunes of Earl Tupper's polyethylene containers from early design to global distribution, Alison J. Clarke explains how Tupperware tapped into potent commercial and social forces, becoming a prevailing symbol of late twentieth-century consumer culture.

Invented by Earl Tupper in the 1940s to promote thrift and cleanliness, the pastel plasticwares were touted as essential to a postwar lifestyle that emphasized casual entertaining and celebrated America's material abundance. By the mid-1950s the Tupperware party, which gathered women in a hostess's home for lively product demonstrations and sales, was the foundation of a multimillion-dollar business that proved as innovative as the containers themselves. Clarke shows how the “party plan” direct sales system, by creating a corporate culture based on women's domestic lives, played a greater role than patented seals and streamlined design in the success of Tupperware.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Alison Clarke tells [Tupperware’s story] with wit and erudition.”—Newsweek

“This detailed and entertaining book explores how the plastic storage containers known as Tupperware rose to prominence in 1950s America. . . . Tupperware was more than just a clever use of plastic and an equally clever marketing tool, it was a symbol of its time and a perfect product for a consumerist age.”—American History

“[Tupperware] explores that domestic icon of suburbia and its role in feminist history.”—Washington Post

“Clarke’s cultural analysis contributes to our growing appreciation of women’s agency in the 1950s USA, as well as in the larger culture of consumption.”—Women’s Review of Books
Jonathan Groner

In 1942, a New Hampshire inventor named Earl Silas Tupper produced a bell-shaped, flexible, injection-molded polyethylene container that would quickly prove ideal for a multitude of kitchen uses. Tupperware had made its first appearance, and as soon as World War II ended and an era of American consumption could begin, the rest would be history. But what kind of history?

That's not at all a frivolous question. In Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America, an entertaining study of the sociological and psychological significance of the phenomenon, Alison J. Clarke, a tutor in design history and material culture at the Royal College of Art in London, breaks new ground in our understanding of 1950s culture. She takes pains to debunk two commonly held scholarly interpretations of those ubiquitous plastic bowls and presents her own quite convincing neofeminist alternative. Tupperware, it turns out, makes an effective prism through which to view aspects of the cultural development of the nation in the latter portion of this century.

As Clarke points out, Tupperware couldn't possibly have achieved its place in American life without the Tupperware party, that oft-ridiculed but wildly successful suburban mainstay. The plastic containers, however attractive and functional they may have been, were languishing on the shelves until 1951, when Earl Tupper, in an act that, Clarke says, showed either "inspired entrepreneurial vision or a reflection of his desperation," handed over his entire sales effort to a neophyte named Brownie Wise.

Wise, an impoverished single mother from Detroit with little but a dream in her heart, was a true American original. She soon built a vast nationwide network of women dedicated to selling Tupper's products out of their homes. Her flamboyant style and the cult of personality she encouraged came into conflict with Tupper's austere New England ways. The clash ultimately got her fired; the "party plan" lives on to this day as Tupperware goes international.

Clarke rejects two academic views of the Tupperware phenomenon, one favorable and one critical. The positive one is that Tupperware became an American icon entirely because it was "a simple, uncluttered functional design, born of the modernist ethos 'Form Follows Function.'" Not so, Clarke argues: The Museum of Modern Art may have put Tupperware on exhibit in 1956, but American women wanted it in their refrigerators because it conveyed middle-class status, because it appealed simultaneously to frugality and ostentation and because their friends and neighbors were selling it and buying it.

The negative view is that the Tupperware party was a vapid, stifling, oppressive institution imposed upon passive American women by the forces of mass culture and advertising. Clarke strongly dissents: Actually, she says, Tupperware culture "offered an alternative to the patriarchal structures of conventional sales structures, which many women, completely alienated from the conventional workplace, wholeheartedly embraced." And Tupperware events permitted many women of the 1950s to gain their voices by speaking in public, thus developing the self-esteem they had lacked. Fostered by Brownie Wise's elaborate circles of reward for sales achievements, Tupperware's "self-help ethos countered alienation and fostered self-determination."

The 1950s are undergoing a reappraisal, with some scholars concluding that the drab black-and-white tones in which the movie Pleasantville conveyed the decade don't do it justice and that a good deal more was happening in those suburban developments than we had believed. Clarke's work is a significant addition to the reconsideration of that misunderstood decade.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Tupperware--the product line of brightly colored, polyethylene containers for leftover foods--has toppled from its iconic role as the hallmark of the modern kitchen to fodder for jokes on Seinfeld. Yet since the late 1940s, when it was invented by Earl Tupper who envisioned the product as both an emblem and agent of postwar household cleanliness and thrift, Tupperware has changed the lives of millions of women who not only used it but found personal and economic freedom as Tupperware salespeople. Clarke's lucid and fascinating social history explicates a host of complex ideas: the ethical and moral meanings of "modern" design in postwar America; the economic and social conflicts that women faced in the 1950s; how suburban living affected consumer culture; the history of door-to-door sales; and the corporate and gender politics of marketing. At the heart of her wonderfully detailed narrative is the story of Brownie Wise, a divorced single parent from Detroit who originated the "Tupperware party," eventually becoming a vice-president of the corporation. Along the way, Wise made herself and the Tupper Corporation a fortune by selling women the dichotomized ideal of the perfect housewife who runs a perfect business. Clarke writes entertainingly even while delivering enormous amounts of information. Using Tupperware as both a symbol and artifact, she provides a provocative cultural and feminist history of the second half of the 20th century. Oct. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Stephen Currie
Readers looking for a multilayered discussion of Tupperware's place in the world of ideas will enjoy this book. Those more interested in a straightforward popular history will, too, but when their eyes start to glaze over, they may want to skip ahead.
American History
Kirkus Reviews
A dense, meticulously researched cultural history of Tupperware that attempts to understand the process by which objects of mass consumption are appropriated as meaningful artifacts of everyday life. Clarke begins with the premise that Tupperware has indeed become a cultural symbol for the American way of life (circa 1950) and that worldwide sales of billion in 1997 are a strong indicator of the appeal of that symbol. She explores how one object of mass consumption can come to matter for our cultural identities more than others. In the case of Tupperware, the product itself is less important than the method by which it was marketed. When Earl Silas Tupper invented the process for making the product in 1942, he was able to get his wares distributed to department stores nationally, but sales were quite low. Then he adopted the method of Brownie Wise, a middle-aged housewife who had churned out impressive sales of products door-to-door to pay her young son's medical bills—and the company began to turn a serious profit. With Wise at the head of his newly created "party-sales" department, Tupper was freed to tinker with an endlessly more complicated and decorative product line. In 1954 Wise became the first woman ever to appear on the cover of Business Week. Tupperware and the Tupperware party are often cited as indications of the homogeneity and conspicuous consumption typical of middle-class suburbia in the 1950s, but Clarke seeks to counter the notion of the suburban housewife as a passive consumer by emphasizing the business skills of Wise and many of her sales force. While signifying domesticity, Tupperware simultaneously situated women in the economic sphere. Thisimpressive foray into the material culture of the 1950s complicates many of the truisms concerning American consumerism and suburban living during the period.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781560989202
  • Publisher: Smithsonian Institution Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Alison J. Clarke is professor and chair of Design History and Theory at the University of Applied Arts Vienna and research director of the Victor J. Papanek Foundation, which promotes socially-aware design. She was formerly a Smithsonian Fellow of History.
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Read an Excerpt

[Earl] Tupper's choice of [Brownie] Wise to organize the new distribution scheme proved fundamental to the success of Tupperware. Dynamic and capable, she convinced Tupper that the key to the success of the product lay in her imaginative and tenacious approach to party plan sales and her understanding of women's needs as housewives, consumers, and part-time workers. The success of her own company, Patio Parties, which as the name suggests appealed to leisurely, suburbun notions of modern living, certainly substantiated her claims. Wise and her mother, Rose Humphrey, organized hostess parties to sell goods as diverse as the “ketchup pump,” “the ashtray with a brain,” and “Atomite: the cleaner with ATOMIC-like action.” As an ideal gift and novelty with contemporary design appeal, Tupperware perfectly suited Wise's clever buying policy. Like the hostess party gatherings themselves, the products that she chose appealed to a new-found modernity. Items such as the hand-size “Sunny” featherweight hair dryer (available in “colors as pretty as your cosmetic box: capri, coral, bermuda blue, sahara sand”) invoked a provocative allure to a home shampoo; easily mountable on the wall “for those last-minute dashes, ‘Sunny’ will dry your hair as you polish your nails and then dry your nails, too!” Wise's immense business acumen and intuitive understanding of feminine popular culture, gift-giving, and attainable glamour would carry the hostess party, and Tupperware, to new dimensions.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 "To Be a Better Social Friend": Designing for a Moral Economy 8
2 Tupperware: The Creation of a Modernist Icon? 36
3 "Poly-T: Material of the Future": A Gift of Modernity 56
4 "The Hostess with the Mostest": The Origins of the Home Party Plan 78
5 "Parties Are the Answer": The Ascent of the Tupperware Party 101
6 "Faith Made Them Champions": The Feminization of Positive Thinking 128
7 "A Wealth of Wishes and a Galaxy of Gifts": The Politics of Consumption 156
8 "Tupperware - Everywhere!": The Globalization of Tupperware 185
Conclusion 197
Notes 203
Index 235
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