As Tupperware celebrates its 70th anniversary, it’s a good time to take a look at the iconic plastic kitchenware that revolutionised food storage and cooking. While it might seem like a rather mundane innovation, the container’s influence extends far beyond its form and function, changing the way we live. The first Tupperware party was held in 1954, and the brand is now sold worldwide. Despite the fact that Tupperware’s early products didn’t sell well in stores, they became hugely popular through a network of dealers and distributors—many of them women. This female-led business model was crucial to the company’s success, explains design historian and author Alison Clarke.
The company’s origin story stretches back to 1938, when Earl Tupper was working in his family’s landscaping company when it went bust during the Great Depression. He began tinkering with plastics, and eventually found work at a Dupont laboratory investigating peacetime uses for polyethylene—the type of plastic used in the war to make radar equipment and other military gear. Tupper realised that this versatile plastic could be used in household products, and set about creating the Tupperware line.
Tupper’s most famous and effective invention was a series of storage canisters, which were light-weight, airtight, and durable—a big improvement over the glass and metal containers most women used at home. The canisters even had a “burping” method for letting out excess air, and the lids were designed to snap over the container for a strong seal. The containers were an instant hit and soon Tupper was shipping them around the world.
But sales weren’t brisk at first, and it was Tupperware’s famous salesperson Brownie Wise who put the business on its feet. Inspired by companies that used home sellers to demonstrate their new cleaning products, Wise devised a system of Tupperware parties. Hosts would invite their friends and neighbours over for drinks and snacks, where the dealer would explain and demonstrate the products—including how to “burp” a canister—and then guests would purchase the products they liked. The hostess would receive a thank-you gift and a commission on the sales.
By organising these group social events, Tupperware was able to tap into the vast sales potential of a receptive group of customers—as well as a growing number of stay-at-home American women. It was also a more intimate form of selling than traditional one-on-one advertising.
In the US, the Tupperware party helped to glamourise domestic housework, and appealed to a generation of women who had left full-time work in cities for suburbia after World War II and were settling into suburban lifestyles where they often found themselves isolated from their families, says Clarke. The Tupperware party “encouraged relationships among women, provided a social outlet and boosted the self-esteem of those who hosted or attended,” she writes.
Tupperware’s rise in popularity coincided with a major demographic shift: 20 million Americans moved from city life to suburbia, and most of those women stayed at home. In the new suburban sanctuaries, women were not only raising kids and caring for husbands who had been sent off to war, but they also were becoming a powerful force in the workforce. Klimaoase