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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. 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.

Alison J. 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. Drawing from newly available records and interviews, Clarke describes how Tupperware Home Parties, Inc., reinforced a conservative ideal while undercutting that ideal by offering women economic independence through a flexible, home-based form of employment. The enterprise was led by Brownie Wise, a struggling single mother who became a celebrated businesswoman by using self-help philosophies and lavish prizes to motivate her sales force.

Tracing the fortunes of Earl Tupper's polyethylene containers from early design to global distribution, the author explains how Tupperware tapped into potent commercial and social forces, becoming a prevailing symbol of late twentieth-century consumer culture.

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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
  • Sales rank: 790,909
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"To Be a Better Social Friend"

Designing for a Moral Economy

The streamlined form of the classic Tupperware Wonder Bowl brings to mind the modernist maxim (suggestive of machine-born simplicity and rationalism), Form Follows Function." Yet despite Tupperware's streamlined aesthetic and its emergence in a period associated with the rise of the American industrial design profession, in fact the object could not be further removed from the culture of corporate design. Household goods and office machinery of the 1930s and 1940s underwent major restyling by "design heroes" such as Raymond Loewy, who in 1949 was featured on the cover of Time magazine and lauded for his part in reversing the downward trend of Depression consumer sales by increasing demand through design. Tupperware belonged to an alternative form of entrepreneurial and design endeavor rooted more firmly in a nineteenth-century context of engineering and invention, and in the early-twentieth-century role of the "jobber" and merchandiser, than the 1930s fashion for corporately sponsored industrial design.

    Earl Silas Tupper, born in Berlin, New Hampshire, in 1907, struggled throughout the Depression years, along with his wife, Marie, to secure an adequate standard of living for his family. His designs were based on an acute understanding of everyday domesticity and moral economy. They originated from the ideals of social reform and utopianism (which in Tupper's vision melded progressive aspects of technocracy with the conservatism of the 1930s colonial revival) rather thanthe highbrow aesthetics of formal modernism or the ardent commercialism of professional industrial design. Writing in his invention notebooks in the late 1930s, Tupper observed the importance of progressive invention: "To invent useful and successful inventions, those with inventive minds should take up individual advanced work and study along some worthwhile line. One should not be afraid to look far, far into the future and visualize the things that might be. ... Remember, the things which are so commonplace today would have been the ravings of a fanatic a few years ago." His design antics were clearly fired by entrepreneurial zeal, but as personal documents reveal, this was by no means the sole motivation of his frequently obsessive and frenetic contrivances. Tupper viewed design and invention as a contemporary practice with a transformative power to enhance the lives of "the masses." As historian of technology Joseph Corn suggests, some inventors have "resembled less the rational and purposeful economic man of scholarly theory than what we might call the visionary man, a kind of dreamer who imagines that his mechanical contrivances could solve social problems." This description of the visionary inventor perfectly encapsulates the figure of Earl Tupper, who from his New Hampshire small farm combined the physically arduous labor of his struggling tree surgery business with his endeavor to transform society through the creation of new product designs. Fastidiously documenting his activities, Tupper worked from home using borrowed and salvaged materials to develop prototypes for household gadgets and fancy goods. This self-taught, informal design process came to fruition when, in 1937, he found casual employment as a sample maker working under license with the Du Pont chemical supply company for the Doyle Works in Leominster, Massachusetts. In 1939, after two years' immersion in the techniques and processes of plastic manufacture, Tupper established his own concern, the Tupper Plastics Company.

    The biographical profile of Earl Tupper as a dependable Yankee inventor proved crucial to the company's promotional campaigns for "Poly-T: Material of the Future" from which Tupperware, the innovative polyethylene container, was derived in the early 1940s. "The whole philosophy of the man and his institution," read a 1949 advertisement, is embodied in the Tupperware product. "Not a product hastily conceived, hastily produced and recklessly recommended," the copy continued, but a design born of intensive research and the highest quality manufacturing. Despite the mythologizing bent of the company's advertising copy, Earl Tupper's role in the creation of Tupperware could hardly be exaggerated. Although by the 1950s the corporate use of biography (exemplified, for example, by the fictitious image of the ideal homemaker Betty Crocker of packaged cake mix fame) had become a familiar commercial device, from its inception as a revolutionary household item Tupperware was genuinely conceived, overseen, and promoted by its original inventor. Protection of the reputation and provenance of the product, an embodiment of Tupper's ideals of Protestant conservatism, social reform, and technological progress, became paramount; his refrigerator dishes were, he believed, destined to change the lives of American citizens and help dispel the discontentment of a wasteful consumer society. While his competitors might happily apply their plastic technology to the production of cheap and garish knick-knacks and dog dishes in the pursuit of a quick buck, Tupper envisioned a world utterly transformed through the appropriate application of polyethylene.

    Tupper's desire to be "a better social friend" through "relentless drive" in invention and design encapsulated the intrinsic sense of modernity invested in his products. The story, then, of Tupperware's popularity is not simply one of technological ingenuity and marketing success, but rather an example of the historical specificity of material culture and the mediation of related social relations and cultural beliefs. Profane as a dog dish, sublime as a sandwich box, Tupperware's indispensability, as the following chapter explores, derived as much from a moral, as a market, economy.

    From the onset, Tupper's self-proclaimed mission was to act as a twentieth-century "super-coordinator" inhabiting an "observatory and workshop high above this world," from which he could "observe general trends i.e. form, streamlining, jazz, health, food, exercise, sunlight, then invent, not too radically to be accepted by a conservative audience, the next logical step in each trend." Throughout the 1930s he maintained diaries, sketchbooks, and invention notebooks to record, in minute detail, the conception and development of each of his ideas. Most notably his formal studies of design remained inseparable from his day-to-day labor, domestic life, and relationships. Pages titled "Thoughts and Plans ... Conversations and Letters" sought to document and protect his progress as an illustrious inventor and "super-coordinator." Under headings dedicated to specific didactic pursuits, such as "How to Invent," "How to Realize An Invention," "Observe This Procedure to Establish Date of Conception," and "On Protecting an Invention," Tupper devised methods to optimize his chances of success and to ensure copyright and patent security.

    Self-conscious analysis of his goals and direction, encapsulated by journal entries titled "The Purpose of My Life," reveal a persistent striving toward self-betterment. Though it exhibits the technical rigor of a professional engineer or inventor's notation, the journal is also indicative of the diaries of New England Puritan testament. Tupper's diaries, notebooks, and journals were not restricted to the musings of the inner self; rather they were intended as public statements of intent. Despite the frequently personal and self-revelatory nature of Tupper's writings, it is significant to note that in his absence his wife Marie completed journal entries as a matter of course, inserting her own detailed observations of the day's proceedings. The journal thus belonged, in a sense, to the household rather than to Tupper as an individual and charted an imaginary trajectory toward "success" and social mobility as a modern form of spiritual atonement.

    As a young man Tupper worked in the small commercial nurseries belonging to his parents in Shirley, Massachusetts. He consistently encouraged his parents to expand their business but was constantly disappointed by their disinclination toward entrepreneurial activity. Frustrated by his own hand-to-mouth existence, he began to immerse himself in a relentless campaign to improve his situation. "One must keep on trying," he steadfastly pledged, "until recognized and until attainment of success." Self-discipline and self-determination, which he considered natural elements of his New England Protestant upbringing, manifested themselves at an early age. In 1923, at the age of sixteen, Tupper committed himself to a strict dietary and exercise regime in an attempt to imitate the posture and anatomy he so admired in the pages of the popular magazine Physical Culture. Using photographs and short biographical descriptions, the publication featured semiclad male and full-dressed female "specimens" chosen for their "physical perfection" and "harmonious symmetry." Awestruck by the physical prowess of one particular male "specimen," Tupper went to the lengths of contacting the journal to ascertain more biographical information, so that he could strive for a comparable standard of self-discipline and physical control. Throughout the 1930s Tupper continued to record details of his height, weight, exercise regime, and diet as he charted his progress toward the balance of his inner moral state and physical well-being. In March 1933, left with little more than "two nickels to rub together" and tormented by his parents' reluctance to "fufil their promises" and lend some "readies" for one of his utopian ventures, Tupper consoled himself with the pursuit of bodybuilding and intensive reading.

    Tupper's potent mixture of Protestant work ethic, positive thinking, and utopianism was indicative of a rhetoric of the American dream that adapted to the historically specific transition from the prosperity of the 1920s to the devastation of the 1930s. In the face of social injustice and economic decline Tupper believed in self-determination and the democratic role of capitalism: "Destiny thru the subconscious mind," he wrote in the midst of the mass unemployment of the Great Depression, "finds a successful future for every open minded thinking individual who earnestly gropes for his destined work."

"Cosmopolitan Utopian" Commerce, Culture, and Social Democracy

Earl Tupper's belief in the power of amateur entrepreneurialism, tacit business acumen, and self-education proved vital to his own design ideology and, ultimately, to the immense success of his marketing ventures. This began in 1932, when as part of an ambitious self-improvement program, Tupper signed up for a correspondence course in business and advertising. Recently married and father of a baby son, he desperately sought to better his financial and living situation with all the vigor of a moral crusade. This endeavor epitomized contemporary rags-to-riches narratives of entrepreneurial success that, given the harsh social and economic realities of the Depression, shifted from an emphasis on strength of character to a stress on the power of personality and self-help. "Let the job seeker sell himself like he would a machine—as something which can produce desirable things which the other `machines' cannot," wrote Tupper in his first correspondence course exercise. The "machine," he suggested, should be constantly maintained, developed, and engineered to perfection by its "operator," geared up to effectively take on any new and profitable task.

    The use of such a metaphor—a well-oiled machine primed to produce desirable articles aimed at a competitive mass market—encapsulates the 1930s ethos of mass production. Tupper, a self-consciously constructed "man of his times," firmly believed in the social and economic benefits of a mass productive economy. Determined to pursue a livelihood beyond his rural existence, he embarked on a course that might open up the world of advertising and manufacturing to him, culminating in work as an agent or marketer.

    Advertising, promoted by the industry as the elixir for Depression ills, held a new currency in the popular imagination. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s publications with exemplary titles such as A Theory of Consumption (1923), The Mind of the Buyer: A Psychology of Selling (1921), and Consumer Engineering (1932) typified the contemporary pseudoscientific confluence of economic theory and popular psychology. Many of these works, indicative of the direction of a new science-led advertising, were littered with references to "conspicuous consumption," "intelligent buying," and "emulation theory." Others even borrowed anthropological structures and cross-cultural analogies to explain how "the meaningless vestiges of former customs" could hinder the modern consumer's pursuit of utility.

    Just as mass production presented a solution to the growing social and economic ills, so too did mass consumption. A prominent commentator, pioneer of the department store chain, and author of Successful Living in This Machine Age (1932), Edward Filene advocated abandoning class hierarchies and liberating the masses through increased wages, lower prices, a shortened workday, and the plentiful availability of goods. The increasingly professionalized advertising industry, equipped with a range of newfangled psychological theories, facilitated the relationship between mass production and mass consumption: "Depression times demanded a new breed of engineer: the `consumption engineer'. The new consumption engineer would complement the production engineer through aggressive marketing activities, especially advertising. He would manufacture customers."

    Despite the professionalization of the industry, Tupper's chosen correspondence course promised its students the opportunity to circumvent expensive and overly theoretical education by encouraging applicants to consider "back-door" entry into the advertising world. By focusing their initial advertising attempts on local merchants and manufacturers, prospective students might accrue invaluable experience; and "though work may not always be had for the mere asking," the introductory course literature reassured, "the missionary efforts put forth in showing people proof of ability ... [is] more impressive with future employers than mere claims." Fashionable consumer psychology and economic theory were overlooked in favor of lengthy, detailed accounts regarding the integration of advertising into established workings of everyday commerce. A particularly fecund area for development, the course literature remarked, was the mail-order business, which used a network of agents receiving "attractive premiums." "A great variety of such commodities as fancy goods, poultry seeds, live stock, rustic furniture, hardware specialties, books, curios, dyes, jewelry," they advised, were "sold to customers by mail-order methods." This method of advertising and merchandising, though potentially profitable, had its drawbacks. "It is important to select a good specialty, to be patient, and to experiment carefully in order to find the most effective and economical way of selling," the course tutors warned. This grass roots approach to advertising and marketing defied the rationalization and theorization of an increasingly formalized industry.

    Although Tupper was a keen follower of modern literature and contemporary ideas, the no-nonsense localized approach to promotion and marketing advocated by the correspondence course appealed to his sense of pragmatism far more than the newfangled ideas of consumer psychology. Indeed the rather crude advice of the correspondence course, which predated the introduction of Tupperware products through mail-order catalogs and premium incentive schemes by more than a decade, later defined the direct sales initiatives used by Tupper in the 1940s as the first attempt at distributing Tupperware through the party plan selling scheme. The party plan scheme, which came to define the Tupperware phenomenon, also relied on a workforce made up of individuals operating with little formal business training or advertising qualifications.

    In a more general context, as a rapidly expanding professionalized force in modern America during the 1920s and 1930s, advertising shifted from an emphasis on the properties of the product to emphasis on the consumer's needs and anxieties. As historian Roland Marchand argues, this led to a range of newly articulated and sophisticated advertising styles: "In their efforts to win over consumers by inducing them to live through experiences in which the product (or its absence) played a part, advertisers offered detailed vignettes of social life."

    The "detailed vignette," which later became a pivotal device in marketing strategies aimed at securing the cultural assimilation of Tupperware in 1940s America, formed the basis of Tupper's earliest attempts at copywriting. In a hypothetical advertisement to promote advertising courses offered by correspondence schools, Tupper constructed a moral story featuring two classmates, Bill and Paul. By inverting contemporary middle-class wisdom regarding the primacy of formal education and the appropriate pathways to success, Tupper's vignette glorified the aptitudes of the layperson and celebrated the value of everyday know-how. In this scenario, Bill, the less-privileged, lower-middle-class underdog, succeeds through enthusiasm and the development of social skills. Paul, financially dependent on his wealthy parents, graduates from "artificial college life" with debts of $30,000 and finds himself unprepared to earn a living. Bill entrenches himself in a steady, going concern that fosters his "practical everyday sense" and supplements his tacit knowledge with an education gained through a correspondence school. The development of Paul's personality and character is restricted, rather than furthered, by four years of college instruction (his mind full, according to Tupper's copy, of "obsolete bookisms"). Consequently he graduates to a life of unemployment and bewilderment at "how ridiculous his position is." In contrast, Bill is a successful correspondence school graduate, socially skilled and versed in the realities of commerce, and becomes a happy, accomplished, well-balanced, and productive citizen. He marries the boss's daughter and buys a little roadster, which, on returning from the wedding trip with his "starry eyed bride," he parks by his little brown bungalow. Considering Bill's self-made success, "Would you want to be Paul?" concludes Tupper's practice copy. As a self-educated man, who spent evenings reading literature ranging from Balzac, Conrad, and Dumas to Reader's Digest and Popular Mechanics, Tupper showed a contempt for the cosseted "college pampered person," admiring instead the self-made pioneer of American cultural mythology.

    Commerce, culture, sociality, and self-determination could, according to Tupper, create a perfect and harmonious future. His visions of an advertising utopia revolved around an ideologically conservative notion of communal prosperity that would be enabled, quite literally, through capitalist democracy and highly efficient marketing campaigns. Retailers, for example, could eradicate "stiff formality" by keeping records of their customer's birthdays, anniversaries, and special events and presenting gifts according to "the percent of profit made on goods sold them during the year." Crass materialism and wanton consumption (exemplified by Tupper's vitriolic tirades against lottery-playing, barhopping men and cigarette-smoking women) were juxtaposed with a utopian vision of America's future, in which commerce and social relations blossomed. A world driven by the engine of advertising and enhanced by the social democracy of consumption would fund mass education and advance the project of modernity. Hankering after sentimental renditions of the preindustrial past held no appeal for Tupper: "No matter how poets and song writers play up the pagan existence and medieval civilizations," he wrote in 1932, "I'll still take modern civilization (so called) and ultra modern civilization—the more advanced the better, I'm for it."

    In his hypothetical plans for a theme park, Cosmopolita World, Tupper outlined a corporate utopia suggestive of the visions espoused by advocates of technocracy, such as Howard Scott and Harold Loeb, who upheld science and technology as the determining forces of future societies, their values, arts, and cultures. Featuring "a daily pageant review of the world from extreme primative [sic] to ultra modern," Cosmopolita World was devised by Tupper as the showcase for a publication concept, a newspaper called Cosmopolitan Utopian. The paper acted as both a commercially oriented, profit-driven publication and a communal space for discussion and debate, with weekly prizes awarded to winners of a competition for "200 word summaries of what the week's advertisements have done for the writer." Subscription to the weekly newspaper was set at five cents, less than the actual cost of producing one copy. "But," wrote Tupper, "the concerns who advertise in this magazine pay us enough to make up the difference." The newspaper, he continued, would be used "to educate the folks in things that are ordinarily neglected in preparing people to better meet the things of everyday life"; advertisers could enhance the lives of consumers by informing them of forthcoming innovations, such as stores featuring the only "doors in the world that open and close as customers approach or leave" and "the most sanitary restrooms," operated by foot.

    In this modern utopia, everything—social reform to sanitary restrooms, pageantry to material abundance—came together through the interrelation of technological progress and corporate control. Tupper's fantasy echoed the technocratic movement's utopian drive for efficiency and the notion of democracy secured through science-led politics, culture, and commerce.

    Advertising, then, would sponsor this temple of modernity, the font of all knowledge, fully accessible to the average American citizen; through advertising, Tupper dreamed, minds would be broadened and goods would be sold. Visitors to the educational and friendly Cosmopolita World would benefit from a central Information Bureau, which offered complete access to and advice on how to acquire knowledge. "Whatever happens in the wide world," read Tupper's slogan, "you'll get details or see it first at Cosmopolita World. If we can't have the actual thing then we will have a duplicate, or the best pictures and most complete and reliable information."

    The notion of a corporate utopia, in which technology and corporate structure enable democracy and a stabilized economy, had been outlined by the famous inventor-businessman King C. Gillette in his book The People's Corporation (1924). Gillette's background was strikingly similar to Tupper's; raised in a small Wisconsin town in the late nineteenth century, he combined invention—devising the first disposable safety razor—with business acumen in pursuit of utopian ideals. He envisioned a world in which "inventors, scientists, businessmen, companies, states and nations" formed "one coherent and unified human organization." Although, like Gillette, Tupper admired the "ultra-modern" he was also drawn to the sentimentalized vision of America's colonial past outlined by manufacturer and social commentator Henry Ford in My Life, My Work (1922). As the instigator of the factory assembly line, Ford combined his belief in scientifically managed production with a nostalgic vision of pastoral life. In 1924, as an experiment in social reform, Ford installed a dam at his farm in Dearborn to create a hydroelectric plant. In contrast to his massive factories in Highland Park and River Rouge, Ford created idyllic workers' communities in the form of small villages consisting of ten or eleven houses clustered around the plant. More an exercise in aesthetics than philanthropy, Ford's vision was part of a broader contemporary conflict between modernity and tradition. This conflict underpinned Tupper's visions and informed everything from his discourse on "wasteful" consumption to his romanticized descriptions of "motherly old fashioned" ladies working serenely at their spinning wheels.

    Despite his grandiose capitalist and corporate aspirations Tupper expressed a genuine interest in social change. In 1933 he commented, for example, on the ingenuity of the communist paper Daily Worker. Though he considered the communists' "efforts toward their goal futile," he added, thoughtfully, "There must be a tremendous reform in many ways before we can truthfully call this era one of civilization." The ideas espoused by the Daily Worker led Tupper to ponder the conscience-raising dimensions of lengthened economic hardship, concluding that another five years of the Depression might actually "awaken the mass to activity" for the benefit of world civilization.

    Throughout his writings Tupper meditated on striving toward social justice and minimizing suffering in general, proudly presenting to the Humane Society, in 1937, an invention for a cruelty-free animal trap. In accordance with the grander schemes of modernism he placed an inordinate amount of faith in the advancement of modern science, empirical research, and the eradication of human misery. But his model of humanitarian commitment cast free enterprise and capitalist profit making as the "natural" outcome of social evolution.

    In May 1937 an emergency appendectomy left Tupper confined to a hospital bed. "So much contact with bodily ills," he commented excitedly, "has left me thinking about bodily inventions." Within days of his painful operation Tupper had devised several medical contraptions including a "dummy patient with rubber intestines, colon, and appendix" with which he could demonstrate his revolutionary instrument for nonsurgical "appendix removal thru [the] anal opening" to the medical profession. Further scientific medical and surgical research, he envisioned, would be sponsored through the receipt of a 5 percent royalty on each appendix removed. Less ambitious but highly perceptive and even prophetic medical observations were inspired by Tupper's contempt for the inadequate health and safety measures in the industrial workplace. Witnessing the amputation of a fellow worker's finger by a "half trained punk of a doctor," Tupper became convinced that modern surgery had the potential to repair rather than destroy partly severed limbs.

    Tupper's musings over politics and social democracy proved inherently contradictory. In the same year that he devised his trap for the Humane Society and complained of industrial health and safety conditions, he sketched designs for the "Tupper Bomb," which exploded and discharged [CO.sub.2] gas on impact. This might prove particularly useful, he noted, for industrial leaders in dispersing disgruntled striking workers. For despite a passing admiration of President Franklin Roosevelt, observing that the nation would benefit "socially and materially" from his intelligence, Tupper's utopian ideals were perhaps more attuned to Frank Capra's populist vision of Shangri-la (depicted in the film Lost Horizon, which he viewed in 1937) than the political realities of the New Deal.


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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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