New Hampshire Firsts: Tupperware!

Apr 27, 2018

In the early 1940s, an inventor from Berlin, New Hampshire, created a container made of refined polyethylene, an odorless, non-toxic plastic. He called the material “Poly-T.” A few years later, he designed an airtight lid.

Five years later, House Beautiful described the lidded container as “Fine Art For 39 Cents.” By the mid-fifties, a collection of these plastic items would be acquired and displayed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

This visionary was named Earl Tupper, and his revolutionary containers were called Tupperware.

New Hampshire Firsts is an ongoing look at the remarkable achievements, incredible inventions, natural phenomenon, and events of national significance that began in the Granite State. Click here to see the series.

Now, full disclosure, Tupperware itself was not invented in New Hampshire. But Earl Tupper was. And the design and intention of Tupperware reflects a very New England ideology.

Alison Clark, head of the Design History and Theory Department at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, says that Tupper's invention was very much tied to where he came from.

"Everything could be solved by a contraption or a gadget," says Clark. "And that included social problems."

Credit Sara Plourde for NHPR

Tupperware wasn't Tupper's only invention. He invented a new kind of knitting needle, dish drying racks, nail decals, and a neck tie rack, all, says Clark, designed to improve domestic life.

He writes in his diaries that he sought to be a “better social friend.” To design for a moral economy, as Clark puts it.

But these inventions - even those that were borderline ingenious - were poorly marketed.

Tupper had to make money elsewhere, first with his tree surgery business in New Hampshire, then at a plastics company in Leominster, MA.

After just a year in DuPont’s plastics division, Tupper split off to found the Earl S. Tupper Company. He took some polyethylene with him, refined it, cleaned it and molded it into Tupperware.

Thin, bendable, durable plastic that kept air and moisture out doesn't seem that special today, but at the time it was unprecedented.

Still, Tupper was an engineer, not a marketer and he struggled to sell his product. He put Tupperware in stores, recommended it to farmers and hairdressers for supply storage, and gave it away as a free gift. Still, the stuff gathered dust on shelves.

And then he met Brownie Wise.

Brownie was a divorcee and single mother who had been ordering Tupperware in bulk, and selling it, along with a sales team, at events that she called “Tupperware Parties.” Clark says she totally transformed the company.

"What the Tupperware party and Brownie and the whole structure was about sharing success rather than finding individual success," explains Clark. "You built the business together."

Wise's model flew in the face of 20th Century corporate culture, which was white collar and masculine. Wise understood that the value of Tupperware as a social tool for women.

With the Tupperware Party, Wise and her team outsold department stores. And Tupper, though he wanted no real part in the world of modern women and their parties, hired Wise as sales manager for the new Tupperware Home Parties Division.

In 1954, Wise became the first woman to grace the cover of Businessweek.

Wise hosted elaborate "Jubilees" at company headquarters in Kissimmee, Florida. She awarded top sellers with diamonds and pearls, as well as motorboats, vacation homes, trophies and tiaras.

Wise glamorized the Tupperware lifestyle. And that changed Tupperware's design.

Tupper's original products were plain white, but as the popularity of Wise's parties and Tupperware grew, pastel colors started to appear.

This made Tupper millions, but it also flew in the face of his Protestant New England disposition.

Despite her incredible success, Wise's days were numbered.

"Earl Tupper's reason for firing Brownie Wise is that she uses a Wonder Bowl as a dog bowl," says Clark.

In Tupper's eyes, this was an inappropriate use of his bestselling item, and reason to fire Wise.

In the end, Brownie Wise would die in relative obscurity. And so would Tupper.

After firing her, Earl Tupper sold Tupperware to the Rexall Drug Store company. Then he divorced his wife, gave up U.S. citizenship and bought an island off the coast of Costa Rica.

Earl Tupper died in 1983, at the age of 76.

But Tupperware lives on, including its bright colors and parties. And whether he would’ve liked it or not, Earl Tupper lives on in the hearts of Tupperware ladies and men across the world.