Tupperware: An American icon
A housewife hosts a Tupperware party in the 1950s. (Image courtesy of Click Americana)
Tupperware: An American icon
by Corbin Crable
They’re durable, they’re colorful, and they’re cherished hand-me-downs that have survived decades in your kitchen and your life on the go.
Tupperware, the name ubiquitous with storage containers designed to keep foods fresh, has a long and storied history, but it might be on the chopping block, according to an article published in late April on CNN’s website.
“Known the world over for its plastic food storage containers and its sales parties, Florida-based Tupperware warned that the company was running out of cash and needed additional money – soon – to say in operation,” the article states. “In some ways, the 77-year-old brand is still a titan: It’s, literally, a household name, and its vivid juice- and fruit-colored products are for sale in nearly 70 countries.
… (But) experts say this is what happens when a once-pioneering brand, beloved by families through generations, is unable to adapt to an evolving marketplace, brutal competition and attitudes and needs of younger consumers.”
The Tupperware brand has found its way into pop culture for years – most recently, the Amazon Prime show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” (Image courtesy of Reddit)
Earl Tupper, the inventor of Tupperware. (Image courtesy of Mass Moments)
Fighting food waste
But for those of us whose Tupperware still sits in our cabinets, pantries, and refrigerators, sturdy and beloved as ever, the brand harkens back to a simpler time, when the years immediately following World War II gave rise to innovations in seemingly every industry imaginable – none more so than the American kitchen.
Inventor and businessman Earl Tupper had experimented with other products throughout the Great Depression with little success – garter stockings, shoe heels, comb cases, and even a boat powered by fish. It wasn’t until Tupper began working in a DuPont-owned plastics plant in Massachusetts that he conceived the idea for the invention that would finally make him a household name.
Launched in 1946 by Tupper, the line of food serving and storage products that bore his name featured a bell shape that the businessman had been developing over the course of the previous four years. The products were largely made of the now-commonly used plastic called polyethylene, which Tupper himself had discovered in 1938. Tupper even developed a “burping seal” for the products – an airtight seal that worked by lifting the lid, allowing for a “burp” of air out, and then pushing the lid firmly down again. He acquired a patent for the lid in 1950.
Tupperware products came in milky white
Though the first Tupperware products came in milky white, they eventually came in nearly every color imaginable. (Image courtesy of Pinterest)
Tupperware catalog from 1982
A Tupperware catalog from 1982.
(Image courtesy of TamaraRubin.com)
Recognized today as multi-level marketing, Tupperware parties promised its party hostesses and sellers a better life – as well as prizes for top sellers, including diamond jewelry and even cars. (Image courtesy of The Tupperware History Group/Facebook)
A wise addition to Tupperware
In the postwar years, when more homes began cropping up in newly designed American suburbs, convenience was king, and Tupperware added ease to meal preparation and storage. Tupper joined forces with Brownie Wise, a woman who had sold home products at parties that proved to be highly popular (he would eventually hire Wise to be his vice president of marketing in 1951). For Tupper, who initially had tried selling his new Tupperware in department stores with little success, the idea of marketing his new Tupperware at home parties was a logical next step. The “Tupperware party” was an event that proved to become synonymous with the product, finding its way into American homes in the following years.
“The company had tremendous cultural impact,” Venkatesh Shankar, marketing professor at Texas A&M, said in the April 25, 2023, article on CNN.com. “The famous neighborhood house parties where Tupperware products were sold by the host to her family and friends was a new way of marketing, combining socializing with direct sales.”
Indeed, the Tupperware party was an ideal innovation of the time.
“The practice dove-tailed brilliantly with the rise of post-war suburbia: women had bigger homes, bigger kitchens, more money to spend, more children to feed, and more responsibilities to keep house,” the article continues. “Into that climate came Tupperware. Its first milky-white plastic product, the “Wonder Bowl,” cost 39 cents, according to Smithsonian Magazine; the museum has a huge Tupperware collection. Over the years, tangerine orange, baby blue and pink, and kiwi green products followed.”
The parties themselves were glamorous, upscale social events – much like an afternoon tea party, according to the article, housewives dressed in their very best dresses, gloves, heels, and hats. The host would carefully present her wares, stacking them delicately in order to show them off. Since this was one of the few socially acceptable ways for women to make money, it proved to be a popular way for housewives to earn income.
Tupperware from the 1950s
An advertisement for Tupperware from the 1950s. (Image courtesy of Click Americana)
Dedication to the brand
Brownie Wise, meanwhile, saw her star rise within the company, combining her sales knowledge, charisma, and femininity to build Tupper’s company and its product, enlisting legions of American housewives to assist her in her crusade.
“Wise had inspired a kind of religious devotion to their work,” Bob Kealing, Tupperware scholar and Wise’s biographer, wrote in “Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built and Lost a Tupperware Party Empire.” “She promised them a better life, and they adored her.”
Tupper took notice but didn’t seem to want the company to become “all about her,” according to Kealing. Tupper fired Wise in 1957.
The success of Tupperware throughout the 1950s and ‘60s shouldered by the brand’s hostesses, led the product to go global, eventually reaching Europe, where hostesses were required to follow a rigid dress code of skirts, stockings and gloves, in keeping with the parties’ feel of an elegant, upscale event. Tupperware proved to be successful in Asian countries, too, in the decades following the product’s peak years.
Tupperware can even be found in museums
Tupperware can even be found in museums, such as this bowl on display from the Kansas Historical Society. (Image courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society)
classic 1970s Tuppertoys
Start ‘em young – These colorful, classic 1970s Tuppertoys are durable and can still be found for sale in antique shops and online (left to right): Street Sweeper Family Pick-Em-Up Truck; Vintage Mini Serve-It Picnic Set; Shape-O shape sorting ball. (Images courtesy of Etsy)
Tupperware sales numbers began a slight dip in the 1980s, throughout numerous acquisitions and mergers. The brand saw its sales continue that trend toward the turn of the century, with the number of salespeople shrinking to just under 2 million by the end of the 2000s. In the past five years, Tupperware has withdrawn its operations in Middle Eastern and European countries. In an effort to boost sales, Tupperware began selling its products in Target stores in recent years with disappointing results, unable to keep up with competitors such as Pyrex, Rubbermaid, and Ziploc, as well, as the changing needs of a younger consumer base.
In April 2023, Tupperware announced that the company needed more money soon so it could remain in operation. And though the company’s next path could be the one that leads to a bankruptcy filing, its name, and nostalgia will endure with those who still own those pieces they bought or received as gifts so many years ago.
“The most valuable thing Tupperware owns is its brand,” John Talbot, business professor at Indiana University said in the CNN article. “Like Blockbuster, the Tupperware brand will never go away,” he said. “I suspect it could file for bankruptcy and if there is a buyer for it, Target would be a great option to revive the brand with new designs and a new marketing plan.”
“It’s been there all my life”
Sellers and collectors alike shared their memories of Tupperware following the news of the company’s struggles – and showed that even in cyberspace, there exists a demand for the beloved bowls, pitchers, and storage containers.
“I rarely deal in newer stock,” collector and eBay seller Karen St. Esprit, 68, of Beaver County, PA, said in an April 23 New York Post article. “I really love vintage and not the new Tupperware.”
Another Tupperware enthusiast and former longtime Tupperware party host, Debbie Angus from Australia, told one news station that the products have always been around her household.
“It’s been there all my life. My mother had Tupperware,” Angus said. “It would be very sad if it folded, I think.”
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