Exploding Plastic Inevitable | The Nation


Exploding Plastic Inevitable

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The "Tupperware party" was actually not the idea of Earl Tupper. A single mother from Detroit, Brownie Wise, caught Tupper's attention with the "Patio Parties" at which she was successfully selling Tupperware and other plastic houseware products in homes. Wise's sales figures were so dramatic that in 1951 Tupper decided to withdraw Tupperware from retail sales venues and focus his entire operation on Tupper Home Parties (THP)--which he appointed Wise herself to direct.

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Joanne Jacobson
Joanne Jacobson is writing a memoir about growing up Jewish in suburban America in the fifties. She teaches American...

Brownie Wise embodied the dramatic opportunities for women's advancement within THP's direct-sales system, and she was tirelessly promoted (and self-promoted) as their exemplar. The company gave to women--like Wise--without business experience or resources an empowering chance to break into the commercial economy and a chance to rise, through sales and recruitment, to managerial positions within the company. In 1954 Brownie Wise became the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week. Wise publicly celebrated her achievement of power and wealth, cultivating "the image of a single, middle-aged woman presiding over an expansive lake estate, complete with island, cabin cruiser, and livestock, all attained without the support or intervention of a man." Women at Tupper Home Parties were "openly encouraged to consider their jobs as potentially serious career prospects"; to believe that "Tupperware could transport women to a world beyond the confines of thrifty homemaking, 'making do'" and "part-time work for 'pin money'"; and ultimately, like Brownie Wise, to "transgress the limitations experienced by the majority of her female contemporaries."

And yet "at least 75 percent of the THP executives were male"--decisively capping women's "infiltration" beneath a familiar glass ceiling. The fact that the company never offered job security to its virtually all-female legions of salespeople, dealers and managers--who remained entirely "self-employed, nonsalaried"--undercut the promise of independent entrepreneurship extended to women by THP. And if Tupperware parties offered women a chance to change their economic status on the familiar ground of domestic life, the party system also reconfirmed the domestic boundaries of women's economic destiny.

An elaborate system of prizes and gift-giving created a communal atmosphere at the company that reinforced these gender ambiguities. Party hostesses were thanked with pieces of Tupperware; at annual "Jubilees" at THP headquarters in the fifties, dealers gathered to dig for lavish hidden prizes, including mink stoles and diamond rings; a "Tupperware wish fairy, complete with tiara, gold tutu, and magic wand," fulfilled lucky hostesses' and dealers' dreams of musical instruments, toys and clothes for their children, and new furniture for their homes. Perhaps, as Clarke suggests, disguising the commercial realities of the employer-employee relationship made it possible for Tupper Home Parties to "deflect...criticism of women subsuming the role of breadwinner"; more likely, it seems to me, this distortion created one more unseen obstacle to women's full-fledged entry into the market economy. And yet Tupperware's engagement of its female employees as willing, passionate partners in excitement and wonder seems undeniable. In one photograph from the Smithsonian archives, the "Tupper-ette" water-ski team is performing in the mid-fifties at a national sales rally--wearing painted Tupperware containers as helmets. The astonishing conversion of Tupperware itself from an ordinary commodity into an instrument of celebration and ritual ceremony seems at once like a bad joke played on women and an epiphany of faith in the transformative power of objects.

Unlikely as it may now seem, the entire Tupperware enterprise--affordable, long-lasting household goods; opportunities for those outside the economic elite to see the work ethic pay off; a social bulwark against the anomie of half-built places--confirmed an Enlightenment vision of the attainability of human happiness that has had a long life in the national mythology of American success. That mythology had to stretch over the tight, needy surface of fear and suspicion during the early cold war years. And what could more viscerally embody the Franklinian vision of America's fortuitous elasticity than plastic? In an era of paint-by-number kits, can-opener cuisine and do-it-yourself home-improvement projects, Tupperware took its place in a roster of things reconstituted from at-hand materials that promised to bring transformation within reach--exactly as Franklin and Thoreau had promised in their own precisely charted narratives.

In a world of unparalleled, inequitably distributed material richness, we live today, most of us, in an environment of cynicism about things. Perhaps that cynicism is at the heart of what makes the fifties glow in the retro light of longing. Similarly, at the end of The Great Gatsby, Nick mourned Jay Gatsby's miraculous, doomed responsiveness to the lost explorers' dream of the "fresh green breast of the new world," before which, he imagined from the equally cynical vantage point of the twenties, "man must have held his breath...face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." So much about Earl Tupper's ambition seems laughable now--he actually broke with Brownie Wise when he discovered that she had betrayed the company's dignity by using a Tupperware bowl as a dog-food dish--and yet one is reluctant, I think, to turn too arrogantly away from his embodiment of the lost credibility of dreaming in things.

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