Tupperware (Inventions)

The invention: Trademarked food-storage products that changed the way Americans viewed plastic products and created a model for selling products in consumers’ homes.

The people behind the invention:

Earl S. Tupper (1907-1983), founder of Tupperware Brownie Wise, the creator of the vast home sales network for Tupperware
Morison Cousins (1934-2001), a designer hired by Tupperware to modernize its products in the early 1990′s

“The Wave of the Future”?

Relying on a belief that plastic was the wave of the future and wanting to improve on the newest refrigeration technology, Earl S. Tupper, who called himself “a ham inventor and Yankee trader,” created an empire of products that changed America’s kitchens. Tupper, a self-taught chemical engineer, began working at Du Pont in the 1930′s. This was a time of important developments in the field of polymers and the technology behind plastics. Wanting to experiment with this new material yet unable to purchase the needed supplies, Tupper went to his employer for help. Because of the limited availability of materials, major chemical companies had been receiving all the raw goods for plastic production. Although Du Pont would not part with raw materials, the company was willing to let Tupper have the slag.
Polyethylene slag was a black, rock-hard, malodorous waste product of oil refining. It was virtually unusable. Undaunted, Tupper developed methods to purify the slag. He then designed an injection molding machine to form bowls and other containers out of his “Poly-T.” Tupper did not want to call the substance plastic because of a public distrust of that substance. In 1938, he founded the Tupper Plastics Company to pursue his dream. It was during those first years that he formulated the design for the famous Tupperware seal.
Refrigeration techniques had improved tremendously during the first part of the twentieth century. The iceboxes in use prior to the 1940′s were inconsistent in their interior conditions and were usually damp inside because of melting of the ice. In addition, the metal, glass, or earthenware food storage containers used during the first half of the century did not seal tightly and allowed food to stay moist. Iceboxes allowed mixing of food odors, particularly evident with strong-smelling items such as onions and fish.

Electric Refrigerators

In contrast to iceboxes, the electric refrigerators available starting in the 1940′s maintained dry interiors and low temperatures. This change in environment resulted in food drying out and wilting. Tupper set out to alleviate this problem through his plastic containers. The key to Tupper’s solution was his containers’ seal. He took his design from paint can lids and inverted it. This tight seal created a partial vacuum that protected food from the dry refrigeration process and kept food odors sealed within containers.
In 1942, Tupper bought his first manufacturing plant, in Far-numsville, Massachusetts. There he continued to improve on his designs. In 1945, Tupper introduced Tupperware, selling it through hardware and department stores as well as through catalog sales. Tupperware products were made of flexible, translucent plastic. Available in frosted crystal and five pastel colors, the new containers were airtight and waterproof. In addition, they carried a lifetime warranty against chipping, cracking, peeling, and breaking in normal noncommercial use. Early supporters of Tupperware included the American Thermos Bottle Company, which purchased seven million nesting cups, and the Tek Corporation, which ordered fifty thousand tumblers to sell with toothbrushes.
Even though he benefited from this type of corporate support, Tupper wanted his products to be for home use. Marketing the new products proved to be difficult in the early years. Tupperware sat on hardware and department store shelves, and catalog sales were nearly nonexistent. The problem appeared to involve a basic distrust of plastic by consumers and an unfamiliarity with how to use the new products. The product did not come with instructions on
how to seal the containers or descriptions of how the closed container protected the food within. Brownie Wise, an early direct seller and veteran distributor of Stanley Home Products, stated that it took her several days to understand the technology behind the seal and the now-famous Tupperware “burp,” the sound made when air leaves the container as it seals.
Wise and two other direct sellers, Tom Damigella and Harvey Hollenbush, found the niche for selling Tupperware for daily use— home sales. Wise approached Tupper with a home party sales strategy and detailed how it provided a relaxed atmosphere in which to learn about the products and thus lowered sales resistance. In April, 1951, Tupper took his product off store shelves and hired Wise to create a new direct selling system under the name of Tupperware Home Parties, Inc.


Home sales had already proved to be successful for the Fuller Brush Company and numerous encyclopedia publishers, yet Brownie Wise wanted to expand the possibilities. Her first step was to found a campus-like headquarters in Kissimmee, Florida. There, Tupper and a design department worked to develop new products, and Tup-perware Home Parties, Inc., under Wise’s direction, worked to develop new incentives for Tupperware’s direct sellers, called hostesses.
Wise added spark to the notion of home demonstrations. “Parties,” as they were called, included games, recipes, giveaways, and other ideas designed to help housewives learn how to use Tupperware products. The marketing philosophy was to make parties appealing events at which women could get together while their children were in school. This fit into the suburban lifestyle of the 1950′s. These parties offered a nonthreatening means for home sales representatives to attract audiences for their demonstrations and gave guests a chance to meet and socialize with their neighbors. Often compared to the barbecue parties of the 1950′s, Tupperware parties were social, yet educational, affairs. While guests ate lunch or snacked on desserts, the Tupperware hostess educated them about the technology behind the bowls and their seals as well as suggesting a wide variety of uses for the products. For example, a party might include recipes for dinner parties, with information provided on how party leftovers could be stored efficiently and economically with Tupperware products.
While Tupperware products were changing the kitchens of America, they were also changing the women who sold them (almost all the hosts were women). Tupperware sales offered employment for women at a time when society disapproved of women working outside the home. Being a hostess, however, was not a nine-to-five position. The job allowed women freedom to tailor their schedules to meet family needs. Employment offered more than the economic incentive of 35 percent of gross sales. Hostesses also learned new skills and developed self-esteem. An acclaimed mentoring program for new and advancing employees provided motivational training. Managers came only from the ranks of hostesses; moving up the corporate ladder meant spending time selling Tupperware at home parties.
The opportunity to advance offered incentive. In addition, annual sales conventions were renowned for teaching new marketing strategies in fun-filled classes. These conventions also gave women an opportunity to network and establish contacts. These experiences proved to be invaluable as women entered the workforce in increasing numbers in later decades.

Expanding Home-Sales Business

The tremendous success of Tupperware’s marketing philosophy helped to set the stage for other companies to enter home sales. These companies used home-based parties to educate potential customers in familiar surroundings, in their own homes or in the homes of friends. The Mary Kay Cosmetics Company, founded in 1963, used beauty makeovers in the home party setting as its chief marketing tool. Discovery Toys, founded in 1978, encouraged guests to get on the floor and play with the toys demonstrated at its home parties. Both companies extended the socialization aspects found in Tupperware parties.
In addition to setting the standard for home sales, Tupperware is also credited with starting the plastic revolution. Early plastics were of poor quality and cracked or broke easily. This created distrust of plastic products among consumers. Earl Tupper’s demand
for quality set the stage for the future of plastics. He started with high-quality resin and developed a process that kept the “Poly-T” from splitting. He then invented an injection molding machine that mass-produced his bowl and cup designs. His standards of quality from start to finish helped other companies expand into plastics. The 1950′s saw a wide variety of products appear in the improved material, including furniture and toys. This shift from wood, glass, and metal to plastic continued for decades.
Maintaining the position of Tupperware within the housewares

Earl S. Tupper

Born in 1907, Earl Silas Tupper came from a family of go-getters. His mother, Lulu Clark Tupper, kept a boardinghouse and took in laundry, while his father, Earnest, ran a small farm and greenhouse in New Hampshire. The elder Tupper was also a small-time inventor, patenting a device for stretching out chickens to make cleaning them easier. Earl absorbed the family’s taste for invention and enterprise.
Fresh out of high school in 1925, Tupper vowed to turn himself into a millionaire by the time he was thirty. He started a landscaping and nursery business in 1928, but the Depression led his company, Tupper Tree, into bankruptcy in 1936. Tupper was undeterred. He hired on with Du Pont the next year. Du Pont taught him a great deal about the chemistry and manufacturing of plastics, but it did not give him scope to apply his ideas, so in 1938 he founded the Earl S. Tupper Company. He continued to work as a contractor for Du Pont to make the fledgling company profitable, and during World War II the company made plastic moldings for gas masks and Navy signal lamps. Finally, in the 1940′s Tupper could devote himself to his dream—designing plastic food containers, cups, and such small household conveniences as cases for cigarette packs.
Thanks to aggressive, innovative direct marketing, Tupper’s kitchenware, Tupperware, became synonymous with plastic containers during the 1950′s. In 1958 Tupper sold his company to Rexall for $16 million, having finally realized his youthful ambition to make himself wealthy through Yankee wit and hard work. He died in 1983.
market meant keeping current. As more Americans were able to purchase the newest refrigerators, Tupperware expanded to meet their needs. The company added new products, improved marketing strategies, and changed or updated designs. Over the years, Tupper-ware added baking items, toys, and home storage containers for such items as photographs, sewing materials, and holiday ornaments. The 1980′s and 1990′s brought microwaveable products.
As women moved into the work force in great numbers, Tupperware moved with them. The company introduced lunchtime parties at the workplace and parties at daycare centers for busy working parents. Tupperware also started a fund-raising line, in special colors, that provided organizations with a means to bring in money while not necessitating full-fledged parties. New party themes developed around time-saving techniques and health concerns such as diet planning. Beginning in 1992, customers too busy to attend a party could call a toll-free number, request a catalog, and be put in contact with a “consultant,” as “hostesses” now were called.
Another marketing strategy developed out of a public push for environmentally conscious products. Tupperware consultants stressed the value of buying food in bulk to create less trash as well as saving money. To store these increased purchases, the company developed a new line for kitchen staples called Modular Mates. These stackable containers came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes to hold everything from cereal to flour to pasta. They were made of see-through plastic, allowing the user to see if the contents needed replenishing. Some consultants tailored parties around ideas to better organize kitchen cabinets using the new line. Another environmentally conscious product idea was the Tupperware lunch kit. These kits did away with the need for throwaway products such as paper plates, plastic storage bags, and aluminum foil. Lunch kits marketed in other countries were developed to accommodate the countries’ particular needs. For example, Japanese designs included chopsticks, while Latin American styles were designed to hold tortillas.

Design Changes

Tupperware designs have been well received over the years. Early designs prompted a 1947 edition of House Beautiful to call the product “Fine Art for 39 cents.” Fifteen of Tupper’s earliest designs are housed in a permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Other museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, also house Tupperware designs. Tupperware established its own Museum of Historic Food Containers at its international headquarters in Florida. Despite this critical acclaim, the company faced a constant struggle to keep product lines competitive with more accessible products, such as those made by Rubbermaid, that could be found on the shelves of local grocery or department stores.
Some of the biggest design changes came with the hiring of Morison Cousins in the early 1990′s. Cousins, an accomplished designer, set out to modernize the Tupperware line. He sought to return to simple, traditional styles while bringing in time-saving aspects. He changed lid designs to make them easier to clean and rounded the bottoms of bowls so that every portion could be scooped out. Cousins also added thumb handles to bowls.
Backed by a knowledgeable sales force and quality product, the company experienced tremendous growth. Tupperware sales reached $25 million in 1954. By 1958, the company had grown from seven distributorships to a vast system covering the United States and Canada. That same year, Brownie Wise left the company, and Tupper Plastics was sold to Rexall Drug Company for $9 million. Rexall Drug changed its name to Dart Industries, Inc., in 1969, then merged with Kraft, Inc., eleven years later to become Dart and Kraft, Inc. During this time of parent-company name changing, Tupperware continued to be an important subsidiary. Through the 1960′s and 1970′s, the company spread around the world, with sales in Western Europe, the Far East, and Latin America. In 1986, Dart and Kraft, Inc., split into Kraft, Inc., and Premark International, Inc., of which Dart (and therefore Tupperware) was a subsidiary. Premark International included other home product companies such as West Bend, Precor, and Florida Tile.
By the early 1990′s, annual sales of Tupperware products reached $1.1 billion. Manufacturing plants in Halls, Tennessee, and Hemingway, South Carolina, worked to meet the high demand for Tupper-ware products in more than fifty countries. Foreign sales accounted for almost 75 percent of the company’s business. By meeting the needs of consumers and keeping current with design changes, new sales techniques, and new products, Tupperware was able to reach 90 percent of America’s homes.
See also Electric refrigerator; Food freezing; Freeze-drying; Microwave cooking; Plastic; Polystyrene; Pyrex glass; Teflon.

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