WASHINGTON _ It is an afternoon in 1954. In households across America, chatty groups of homemakers gather. Around the women are scattered candy-colored plastic cocktail shakers, plastic cigarette holders, plastic hors d’oeuvre dishes, plastic storage containers, plastic bowls and plastic sets of tumblers, drink stirs and wagon-wheel coasters.
You guessed it — it's a Tupperware party.
Today, somewhere in the world, a Tupperware party occurs once every 2.5 seconds, says a new book published by the Smithsonian Institution Press. And since its birth in the 1950s, the Tupperware party has become for generations of homemakers the distinctive and exclusive way Tupperware sold its products. It also was one way Tupperware changed society.
“It was really about how objects and consumers become meaningful. People make meanings and identities and social groups through the items they buy and the products they have,” Alison J. Clarke said. She is the author of “Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America,” a history of the cutting-edge plastics company.
And the famous gatherings became an excuse for people to get together and socialize. “The Tupperware party,” Clarke said, “was a new social event.”
Clarke spent a decade dredging through tens of thousands of papers and interviewing former Tupperware saleswomen. “I was looking at how technology gets popularized in every day life,” Clarke said, “and Tupperware seemed like an easy topic.”
Some of Clarke’s information came from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian displays only a handful of Tupperware products. But the museum's archives store three separate collections of Tupperware leftovers: business documents, films and recordings — 31 cubic feet of papers alone.
John Fleckner, chief archivist at the museum, gives the Tupperware memorabilia a high value. “These collections, like the best ones we have, have stories within stories within stories,” said Fleckner. He waxes poetic on the plastics' collection:
“At one level these are biographies of two people who were successful businessmen in the day. This is a story of an American and now successful corporation. This is a story about inventing and the inventing spirit. It’s a story about entrepreneurs, a story about business and commodity intersecting and effecting our lives. It’s a story about transforming women in American society. It’s a story about the way in which artifacts are used in some really elemental social relation both commercial and private. So it’s a lot bigger story than just plastic houseware. That’s what makes this such rich collection to have.”
Who would have guessed that about Tupperware?
In Clarke's book, the centerpiece is Brownie Wise — the daughter of a plumber from Buford, Ga.; a divorcee; and the mother of one child. She was hired by Tupperware inventor Earl Tupper in 1951 and became Tupperware’s Vice President and fairy godmother. Wise generated the Tupper-revolution with her innovation of the home party system. She was a motivator who encouraged housewives to become saleswomen, businesswomen and hostesses. She also encouraged them to have a good time.
“It was about being fashionable and fun that made it sell,” Clarke said. “She understood that women really valued the advice and opinion of other women as consumers.” The Tupperware party offered employment, money and self-esteem to women in the Tupperware sorority — a chance for women to socialize as well as sell. And sell they did. By 1954, Brownie's troops numbered 20,000 dealers, distributors, and managers — 95 percent of them women.
“Women would genuinely swap advice on which product they used,” Clarke said. “Brownie Wise really keyed into the concept that buying and consumer culture wasn’t about competition but about sharing. It was about women feeling modern.”
Wise became the first woman to grace the cover of Business Week in April 1954. She lived her part with enthusiasm. She loved pink or “Tupperware Rose.” Her Tupper-wear consisted of mostly pink clothes. She grew hybrid pink roses, drove a pink convertible and even owned a dyed-pink canary.
As a motivator, she was creative. To celebrate the three-year anniversary of Tupperware Home Parties, for example, she brought her top saleswomen to company headquarters in Orlando, Fla., for what she called a “Tupperware Homecoming Jubilee.” Out of what was nearly hallowed ground, the saleswomen dug extraordinary rewards: attaché cases, diamond rings and mink coats. The Homecomings continued every year since.
By 1958, Wise and founder Earl Tupper — a reclusive man who kept a stiff Tupper-lip — fell out. Company directors dumped Wise. Tupper sold the company the same year.
Now, the company competes with Rubbermaid and plastics makers. But Tupperware remains a household name, generic for anything plastic that holds food. From its first Wonder Bowl — with the burp, to let out air and seal its lid tight — Tupperware produced the Party Susan, tumblers, children’s toys, and microwave-safe dishware.
“Tupperware has always changed with plastics technology,” Clarke said. “It has always been at the forefront of plastics technology.”
Her research, she admitted, changed her life. “I was Tupper-less before I started my research,” Clarke said. Now, even she has her own set of pastel cereal bowls. “I was converted to the Tupper-gospel.”