Exploding Plastic Inevitable | The Nation


Exploding Plastic Inevitable

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The fifties may have been the last great moment when Americans entrusted their dreams of transformation to the material world. In the postwar years rationed hunger was let loose on a whole new world of goods, visible manifestations of the possibilities of upward mobility that were renewed in the boom economy. More even than symbol, the material world became a theater of transformation. On the glowing, capacious stage of things--cars, hula hoops, rockets--our destiny of motion was revealed. And our destiny of metamorphosis: as malleable as Silly Putty, Play-Doh and Jell-O. In the same postwar kitchen where hunger could be miraculously satisfied, the most ordinary of ingredients--cornflakes, dried-onion soup, Ritz crackers, potato chips, marshmallows--could be converted into the beautiful, the delightful and the delicious: casseroles and desserts that pleased growing families and sparked entertaining parties.

About the Author

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

One of the most familiar fixtures of American quotidian culture that acquired during these years the shine of the more-than-ordinary, the more-than-thing, was Tupperware. Unencumbered by irony, items like the "Wonder Bowl" were elevated by Tupper Plastics, Inc., to the status of powerful instruments of transformation. Earl Tupper's sleek designs embraced a functional new aesthetic; his ingenuity confirmed American engineering prowess and revived the powers of plastic itself, the magical transmutation of "a lump of black, recalcitrant chemical waste product." Tupper's bowls and tumblers were, in fact, designed and marketed with large ambitions: the "total 'Tupperization' of American homes." Modernized by Tupperware, domestic life would take up a new future, presided over by the resourceful, efficient American "hostess" wielding an expanding palette of consumer goods on behalf of family and hospitality. "Through an act of genius and alchemy," Alison Clarke intones in the same mythologizing spirit, "Earl Tupper summoned forth a divine creation to benefit humanity."

Earl Tupper conceived his life's work in the high Franklinian terms of self-improvement and social reform. Self-educated and self-made like Franklin, Tupper kept attentive track of his diet and exercise regimes as well as his progress as an inventor, and he dabbled in schemes for social change, including a utopian theme park. From being a struggling worker in a rural family business, Tupper managed to remake himself into a successful innovator, entrepreneur and, eventually, corporate leader. Tupper worked in the thirties for a New England plastics manufacturer that encouraged him to use company resources to experiment on his own time with ideas for molded-plastic products. By 1939 Tupper had founded his own company; by the early forties he was designing his own plastic housewares, using a versatile new form of polyethylene that had originally been developed for wartime industries. Tupper's great innovation (for which he applied for a patent in 1947) was the "Tupper seal," based on the inversion of a paint-can lid, which created an air- and liquid-tight closure (emitting the famous "Tupperware burp") and became the core of a mass-producible system of unbreakable, stackable, generic containers in a variety of "sculptural" shapes. The Tupper seal "transformed the product from a flexible plastic bowl to a patentable technological form"--and made it possible for Tupper to project his entire line of products as exemplars of a social ideal that combined beauty, affordability and efficiency--to, in effect, bring modernity within reach of the average household.

Alison Clarke makes an interesting and largely convincing case for Tupperware's negotiation of a path between old and new during these years of anxious transition. Most plainly, Tupperware's promise of "sealed-in freshness" enlisted modern materials and design on behalf of the intrinsically conservative mission of preservation. Tupperware pieces like "Patio Partners" and "TV Tumblers" were designed to fit a new generation of social occasions (barbecues, buffets, cocktail parties) and to serve a new generation of recipes, like "Chuck Wagon Casserole," that encouraged convenience and spoke of affluence--while at the same time encouraging the thrifty use of leftovers. In this way, Clarke argues, "the Tupperware ethos circumscribed the contradictions of thrift and excess, decorum and caprice."

It was without a doubt the innovation of the "Tupperware party" that gave the products their most organic access to American domestic life. The Tupperware party fit perfectly the shifting social, economic and emotional conditions of the great postwar migration to suburbia. Door-to-door sales by the Fuller Brush Company, the Electrolux Corporation, Stanley Home Products and Avon Products had already by the early fifties staked a commercial claim on the intimate turf of suburban America, whose homogeneous middle-class population offered "an abundant supply of easily targeted consumers." In a culture of newcomers, the Tupperware party was "the ideal home-based networking opportunity for a newly displaced population." Against the backdrop of still tenuous neighborhoods, Tupperware parties created a ready-to-use, ritualized occasion for entertainment--complete with a designated social leader, a repertoire of activities and a "Get-Acquainted Set" of shared objects--that filled a social vacuum for women isolated at home with young children and, at the same time, transformed consumption itself into a party.

Some of Clarke's most suggestive analysis focuses on the women-only environment of the Tupperware party and, especially, of the Tupperware system of dealerships. According to Clarke, in blurring "domesticity and commerce, work and leisure, friend and colleague, consumer and employee" the entire Tupperware project managed to forge a new, uncertain amalgam that charted an ambiguous course of change for women.

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