Exploding Plastic Inevitable

Exploding Plastic Inevitable

The fifties may have been the last great moment when Americans entrusted their dreams of transformation to the material world.


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.

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.

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.

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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