Historians accuse 1950s America of dreaming mundane dreams after the defining moments of World War II. This suspicion seems to be born out in a new documentary’s footage of a chipper Tupperware lady gushing about “modern dishes for modern living.” She exclaims to a living room audience: “Haven’t you wished for unspillable containers that wouldn’t break?”
What was wrought by the “bowls that burped” is examined in American Experience‘s “Tupperware!” which re-airs tonight on many PBS stations (it was originally broadcast in February). The documentary, written and directed by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt and narrated by (no, not Florence Henderson) Kathy Bates, concentrates less on Tupperware products than on the social significance of Tupperware parties, which first spread through American living rooms in the 1950s. These gatherings, the precursor of what we now ominously call “viral marketing,” gave Tupperware the exposure it sorely lacked when it first fashioned its opaque containers. But more important, Kahn-Leavitt says, Tupperware parties provided social validation and economic identity to women who—as Betty Friedan and now Mona Lisa Smile have pounded into the American mind—lived low-ceilinged lives confined to the kitchen. (Actually, more women worked outside the home in the 1950s than the decade before, as one historian notes at “Tupperware!”‘s extensive companion Web site.)
Kahn-Leavitt’s decision to rush through the invention of Tupperware is disappointing, for the product’s science is as interesting as its sociology. During World War II, DuPont developed a plastic compound called polyethylene to insulate electrical wiring on war equipment. After the war it solicited suggestions for how to sell polyethylene to American consumers. One factory worker, Earl Tupper (whose previous get-rich schemes, including the fish-propelled boat and the belt-buckle picture frame, somehow never caught on), took some polyethylene pellets, fiddled with his molding machines, and came up with his “Wonderbowl,” with its patented burping seal (an idea he said he got from paint cans).
But Tupper’s business sense was nonexistent, so it fell to one woman to make Tupperware a multi-million dollar industry: Brownie Wise. A young mother with an eighth-grade education and, it turned out, a knack for marketing, Wise landed a meeting with Tupper at his Massachusetts headquarters after a persistent complaint call. She sold Tupper on the idea of keeping Tupperware out of stores and instead letting women sell it in their living rooms, taking advantage of their built-in social networks and their personal testimonials. He immediately handed her the reins of Tupperware’s sales operations, which she moved to Kissimee, Florida. From there she started a grassroots movement of women who toured living rooms touting Tupperware, taking a cut of their profits. The most ambitious held three parties a day. “If we build the people, they’ll build the business,” Wise said. She traveled around the country holding sales rallies, in which she lavished awards (including honorary diplomas, no minor symbol to women who had foregone higher education) and glory on her most successful sellers. Wise also started an annual Jubilee convention at her Florida gardens, without Tupper’s approval or attendance. She became a celebrity, idolized by aspiring Tupperware sellers and noticed by Wall Street; Wise was the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week.
After celebrating the success of Wise and her troop of sellers, “Tupperware!” ruefully notes that theirs was still a man’s world. Tupperware ladies could earn promotions to dealer, then manager, and then distributor, but they eventually smacked up against a plastic ceiling. Tupperware was “built by women, run by men,” Leavitt says. Wise’s staff was all men, as were all the suits in the Massachusetts headquarters. Whether it was sexism or just jealousy of her celebrity that led to Tupper’s unceremonious dumping of Wise in 1958 is left unclear, but the moral of this otherwise upbeat story is that a woman couldn’t make it to the top (or stay there, at least) in the 1950s.
Wise, who was given a puny severance package, and Tupper, who sold his company later that year, retired to obscurity. Before they did, “Tupperware!” suggests, they realized the essential American aspiration. To those who stored their dreams in it, Tupperware was never about making plastic bowls but about making themselves.