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Tupper, Earl Silas

TUPPER, EARL SILAS


The story of Earl Tupper is one of American ingenuity, in which a young man with a basic high school education, an inventive genius, and a commercial eye was able to transform an ugly hunk of oil refinery waste known as "slag" into a form of plastic that could be made cheaply into many useful things. Tupper's new plastic and his methods of forming the plastic changed the shape and design of household objects, as well as commercial objects in the last half of the twentieth century. His marketing technique of hosting product demonstration parties in the home became extremely successful and has been imitated by other companies selling such items as underwear, home decorations, gardening supplies, and cooking utensils. Earl Tupper's Tupperware is one of the most recognized household names in the world.

Earl Tupper was born on July 28 1907, in Berlin, New Hampshire, and was the only child of Ernest and Lulu Tupper. His father, Ernest Leslie Tupper, ran a family farm and greenhouse. His mother, Lulu Clark Tupper, took in laundry to wash for neighbors and ran a boarding home. Earl's father was a person who loved to build and tinker, and he created several laborsaving gadgets. He was granted a patent for a device that facilitated the cleaning of chickens. Perhaps Earl Tupper developed his talent for inventions by watching his father.

Earl Tupper was energetic as a youngster, interested in business and in making money. He discovered he could sell a lot of the family's farm produce if he went door-to-door rather than just selling it at the farmer's market. By age 10, Earl learned that bringing the product to the customer was lucrative as well as enjoyable. He would reinvent this method years later in the form of the Tupperware party.

In 1925 Tupper graduated from high school in New Hampshire when he was 17 years old. After graduation he continued to work in the family businesses until he was nineteen. By then he had determined that somehow, as a businessman, he would make a million dollars by age 30. Tupper's early employment also included working as a mail clerk and as part of a railroad labor crew. In his spare time he took a course to learn tree surgery so he could start his own business tending trees and landscaping. In 1931, at age 24, Earl married and he and his wife later had five children, one daughter and four sons.

Although he started his landscaping business during the Great Depression (19291939), it was a modestly successful venture. His Tupper Tree-Doctors Company stayed open for six years. During this time, Tupper also kept himself busy conducting various experiments and writing a series of scientific papers that described his vast interests and numerous ideas for inventions. However, at age 30 he was forced into bankruptcy instead of having made his first million.

In 1936, after his bankruptcy, Earl met Bernard Doyle, an inventor working at the plastics manufacturing division of the Du Pont Corporation in Leominster, Massachusetts. Earl became intrigued with the possibilities of plastic and went to work at the plastics plant where he later said, according to the records of the National Museum of American History, "It was at Du Pont that my education really began." It was also where Tupper conducted his earliest experiments with plastics prior to World War II (19391945).

Earl Tupper worked for Du Pont for just one year and in 1938 he left the company to start the Earl S. Tupper Company, which advertised the design and engineering of industrial plastics. He wanted to experiment with plastic and asked Du Pont for some polyethylene slag, a waste product of the oil refining process. It was black, hard, putrid, and unworkable in that form. Tupper refined and cleaned the slag to produce a translucent, white, flexible, lightweight, odorless, and non-toxic plastic. This improved plastic, called Poly-T, became a revolutionary substance in the modern world. Tupper's modern plastic was made to withstand almost anything with the exception of sharp knife-cuts and near-boiling water. Tupper also designed injectionmolding machines to create shaped objects out of his new plastic, and subsequently developed his famous, patented air-tight lid.

Most of the work during his company's first few years was performing subcontract work for Du Pont. The company made much of its money producing molded parts for gas masks and signal lamps for the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war, along with hundreds of other manufacturers, Tupper turned his attention to the postwar consumer market. He made items such as plastic sandwich picks, unbreakable drinking tumblers, and plastic cigarette cases. These consumer products were often given away with other well-known products. The tumbler was offered with Tek toothbrushes and the cigarette cases were offered along with brand name cigarettes along with the cigarette company's logo imprinted on the case. Tupper then focused on creating a line of plastic food storage containers that would hold foods "air tight" in the refrigerator, sealing them against other odors and keeping foods fresh longer. These containers were known as "Tupperware," and were first distributed in department and hardware stores. Unfortunately, because of the bad reputation of other plastics, sales were dismal in stores. Consumers knew little of Tupper's new type of plastic and the ingeniousness of Tupper's air-tight seal needed to be demonstrated to customers.

Tupperware was also distributed through private household product companies, such as Stanley Home Products. Some home product salespeople were selling fairly large quantities of Tupperware products, to the point where Tupper took notice, contacted them, and met with them to discuss possible new ways to market and distribute Tupperware. A Stanley Home Products saleswoman, Brownie Wise, suggested that Tupper develop a marketing strategy modeled after the Stanley Home Product Company's in-home selling parties. Thomas Damigella and several other Tupperware distributors also strongly urged Earl Tupper to pull his products out of department stores and to pursue direct marketing to the buyer using the "home party." The idea was to demonstrate the products in the home of a person who sponsored a "Tupperware party," where all questions could be answered in a social atmosphere. At one point small Tupperware products were given away to those who attended the parties. Brownie Wise was a very innovative, ambitious, and smart saleswoman and she went on to become vice president of the company Tupperware Home Parties in 1951 where she remained until 1958. Home demonstration parties have remained the primary outlet for Tupperware and have become an institution. By 1951, Tupper set up the Tupperware world headquarters in Orlando, Florida, on an 1,100-acre site chosen by Brownie Wise.

By the time he decided to retire, at age 51, Earl Tupper had created an enormously successful worldwide organization involved in the manufacture and direct sales of plastic containerscontainers that were beautiful enough to be collected regularly by the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, and displayed there, as early as 1947. Tupperware has also earned a place in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Montreal, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The beauty and functionality of these products, and the direct face-to-face sales, became an unbeatable combination.

By the late 1940s Earl Tupper brought a clean, durable and attractive plastic into the world of commerce. Developing a high-quality plastic along with an ingenious method of production served as a catalyst for numerous plastic products that have since flooded the marketplace. The direct face-to-face selling technique of the company became extremely popular and the home party idea has continually evolved. Tupperware created literally millions of jobs for a sales force that has been mostly women. When Tupperware started to become popular household items the work force in the United States was going through major changes. During World War II, while so many of the country's men were in the armed forces, many women had entered the male-dominated job market, such as in factories. Women also worked at jobs created for the war effort and when the war ended so did the jobs. Upon the servicemen's return, women were pushed out of the job market. Also after World War II many children were bornthe baby boomand at that time many women who had children did not work outside the home. Selling Tupperware provided convenient part-time or full-time employment for many of these women who sought a career outside the home.

Tupper sold Tupperware to Rexall Corporation in 1958 for $16 million. In 1973 Early Tupper retired and moved to Costa Rica where he eventually became a citizen. At the age of 76, Tupper died of a heart attack in his adopted homeland on October 3, 1983, and was survived by a sister, five children, and 14 grandchildren. Although Tupper built an enormously successful company making numerous plastic products he never liked the term "plastic." He used to insist on calling what he made "Poly-T" because "a lot of plastic that is made is junk."

Earl Tupper is remembered for more than quality children's toys, lettuce corers, orange peelers, tea strainers, gardening tools, and cake keepers, and other products he helped produce. The Earl S. Tupper Research and Conference Center is located at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The facility includes the Earl S. Tupper Tropical Sciences Library, laboratories for chemistry, plant physiology, histology, acoustic communication, entomology, and a scanning electron microscope.


FURTHER READING

Clarke, Alison J. Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.

National Museum of American History Exhibition Earl S. Tupper Papers.

The New York Times Biographical Service. Sanford, NC: Microfilming Corporation of America, 1993.

A Worldwide Success Story [cited June 30, 1999] available from the World Wide Web @ http://www.tupperware.com/.

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