By making plastic attractive for home use and inventing a lid that kept food fresh, Earl Tupper revolutionized the storage industry and influenced the design of all sorts of household products. And, even though he died in 1983, his legacy will live on for years since his name can be found stamped on plastic products in almost every kitchen across the United States. But Tupper is remembered not only for his advances in design and plastics, he is also known for supporting scientific causes. The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Washington, D.C., includes the Earl S. Tupper Tropical Sciences Library and the Earl S. Tupper Research and Conference Center.
"Fine art for 39¢!"
—A 1947 review of the new Tupperware products in House Beautiful
Farmer and Tree Surgeon
Earl Silas Tupper was born in 1907, the only child of Ernest Tupper, a farmer, and Lulu Tupper, who supplemented the farm income by running a boarding house and taking in laundry. From childhood, young Tupper was always creating new inventions. He was probably inspired to become an inventor by his father, who liked to create new gadgets as he worked around the family farm. Ernest Tupper even held a patent, for a device that helped farmers clean chickens.
Along with inventing, Earl Tupper took an early interest in business and had the idea to sell the family's produce door-to-door. After graduating from high school in 1925, Tupper worked on the farm for a couple of years, but his real goal was to become a millionaire by the time he turned thirty years old.
He did not fulfill this goal. Tupper worked at various jobs, including mail clerk and on the railroad, and got married at age twenty-four, eventually having four sons and a daughter. Meanwhile, he took a course on how to be a tree surgeon, and set up his own business, the Tupper TreeDoctors Company. This was during the Depression of the 1930s, but the company was successful for a while in spite of the bad economy. Ironically, it remained in business for six years before going bankrupt—the year Tupper turned thirty.
An Interest in Plastics
In 1937, Tupper began to work in plastics at the DuPont Corporation, at the recommendation of DuPont scientist Bernard Doyle, whom he had met the year before. At DuPont, Tupper learned the basics of what would become his career. He stayed at the company for only one year, leaving to start his own firm, the Earl S. Tupper Company, which designed and engineered industrial plastics. Meanwhile, Tupper worked to improve upon the qualities of plastic, which was used in many household products but was not popular because it smelled bad and was difficult to work with.
Earl Tupper didn't like to use the word "plastic" to describe his creation, which he always referred to as Poly-T. He felt plastic had a bad reputation due to its earlier faults, and wanted to emphasize the clear difference between his product and the plastics known to consumers in the past.
Tupper got a chunk of polyethylene slag, a waste product of the oil-refining process, from DuPont and began to experiment with it. He wanted to see if he could make a substance that would work well for consumer products. His improvements produced a superior plastic called Poly-T, which was strong, nontoxic, lightweight, and flexible. It lacked the bad smell and greasy feel of previous plastics. Tupper also invented machines that allowed him to manufacture shaped objects from Poly-T and developed a new kind of lid that was airtight.
Brownie Wise: The Tupperware Lady
Brownie Hunt Wise was a divorced mother whose son had health problems. To help make ends meet, she took a sales position with Stanley Home Products, a company that distributed Tupperware along with other household goods. Wise realized she would have to explain the benefits of Tupperware to her customers in order to sell it, so in 1948 she started to hold parties where she could demonstrate the bowls' unique qualities.
Earl Tupper heard about this savvy saleswoman and called her up to ask her about her secret for success. After Wise explained her technique, he hired her to extend her sales method throughout the company. In 1951, Wise became vice president of Tupperware Home Products. By enthusiastically recruiting women to become "hostesses" and starting a system of rewards and incentives to spur the hostesses to sell more Tupperware, Wise was instrumental in making Tupperware a success. She also gave women opportunities to earn an income and socialize with friends, two things that the typical 1950s homemaker did not have.
Wise gained fame for her work at Tupperware, even becoming the first woman to appear on the cover of BusinessWeek magazine in 1954. She and Tupper were increasingly at odds, however. He was uncomfortable with her business methods and resented the credit she was getting for the company's success. He felt it was his products that were moving the company forward, not her sales concepts.
Wise published her autobiography, Best Wishes, Brownie Wise, in 1957. The next year, Tupper fired her; the final straw was a fight over a dog dish. Wise went on to start several other sales companies, but she never regained the reputation and fame she had at Tupperware.
The Home Party Idea
Tupper's airtight bowls, called "Tupperware," were introduced in 1946 through department and hardware stores and catalogs. They did not sell well at first, but sales took off once Tupper partnered with Brownie Wise in 1948. Wise had worked for a Tupperware distributor, Stanley Home Products, and had been successful with home parties. Tupper hired her to expand the home sales idea throughout the company, which proved a successful technique.
By 1951, his product line was such a success that Tupper was able, with Wise's help, to build a world headquarters campus on 1,100 acres in Orlando, Florida. While Wise took on many of the sales functions of the company, Tupper spent his time developing new products and improving upon the Tupperware idea. As the 1950s progressed, Tupper and Wise began to disagree with each other more and more about the direction of the company. Tupper felt Wise was getting too much publicity and Wise had a hard time convincing Tupper to try her new business ideas, which she felt were crucial to success. Eventually, in 1958, Wise was fired.
Morison Cousins: Adding Pep to Tupperware
Morison Cousins was a well-known product designer when he came to Tupperware in 1990 as vice president of design. His most recognized creation was the Dixie Cup dispenser, a container for storing Dixie brand paper cups that made it easy for customers to pull out just one cup at a time. The American Can Company, owner of Dixie, had sold more than one hundred million Dixie Cup dispensers.
Cousins was born on April 10, 1934, in Brooklyn, New York. He grew up in Queens, New York, where his father sold carpet at Macy's department stores. His mother used Tupperware. Influenced by the designer Raymond Loewy, Cousins knew he wanted to design products. He studied at the Pratt Institute in New York, worked at International Harvester designing trucks, and served in the U.S. Army for two years before forming Cousins Design with his brother. Cousins Design created products such as hair dryers for companies including General Electric, Inc. (see entry).
Many of Cousins's designs, like Tupper's before him, are featured in museum collections. One of his best-known products for Tupperware was the "On the Dot" kitchen timer, developed in 1993. It was cone-shaped and simple and was unlike previous Tupperware designs. Cousins died in 2001 at age sixty-six of colon cancer.
The feud between company founder Earl Tupper and sales leader Brownie Wise became so deep that when Tupper later wrote company histories, many of which are included with his papers in the Smithsonian Institution, he entirely left out Wise's contribution to the company.
That same year, Tupper decided to retire at age fifty-one. He sold the company to the Rexall Corporation for $16 million, divorced his wife, Marie, and moved to Costa Rica, where he became a citizen. Tupper spent his time pursuing humanitarian and utopian ideas (ideas related to creating a perfect world). He did not want to live near other people and the sparsely populated Costa Rica met his needs. Tupper died of a heart attack at age seventy-six in 1983.
For More Information
Clarke, Alison J. Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.
Byars, Mel, and Laetitia Wolff. "Tupperware: Is the Party Over?" Graphis (January/February 2002): p. 88.
Goldman, Abigail. "Tupperware Still Parties—But It's Spreading to Target." Los Angeles Times (July 8, 2001): p. Cl.
Liston, Brad. "Tupperware's Net Parties." San Francisco Chronicle (March 3, 1999): p. B2.
Martin, Douglas. "Morison S. Cousins, 66, Designer, Dies; Revamped Tupperware's Look with Flair." New York Times (February 18,2001): p. 41.
BeautiControl, Inc. [On-line] http://www.beauticontrol.com (accessed on August 16, 2002).
Tupperware, Inc. [On-line] http://www.tupperware.com (accessed on August 16, 2002).