The Tupperware Mystique

Never underestimate the power of burping fridgeware: Somewhere in the world, a Tupperware party starts every two seconds.

The popular pastel plasticware has come a long way since an inventor named Earl Tupper turned his attention from making plastic gas-mask parts to consumer products after World War II. His quest was to solve a postwar dilemma of national scope: how American homemakers could keep food fresh and appealing in the newfangled electric and gas refrigerators flooding the postwar market. His solution: a seemingly simple vessel that burps when its lid is secured.

But just how the polyethylene kitchenware became a full-blown cultural icon will be the subject of “Tupperware: An American Icon” at the Johnson County Museum of History Sunday, August 6. The presentation will continue the museum’s ’50s theme, complementing the “1950s All-Electric House,” an actual house that Kansas City Power & Light built in 1954 — back when the Tupperware craze was just taking off — to showcase the latest in modern electric living and that now sits next to the museum’s main building.

Although Tupper invented his product in 1946, it wasn’t until he met a single mom named Brownie Wise in the ’50s that Tupperware’s popularity grew. Wise became a top direct-seller by inviting her friends and neighbors to parties at which she turned door-to-door demonstrations into suburban social events, and her selling success made her the first woman ever to appear on the cover of Business Week.

While Tupperware became an American icon, it is easily — and incorrectly — dismissed as a symbol of homogenized domesticity and suburban lifelessness. But in actuality, the kitchenware that has been revered for its functional design in museums all over the country involves far more complex socioeconomic implications.

For instance, in Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America, Alison J. Clarke argues that Tupperware empowered its legions of “Tupperware ladies” by offering “an alternative to the patriarchal structures of conventional sales structures, which many women, completely alienated from the conventional workplace, wholeheartedly embraced.”

Who knew?

Tupperware now touts its career opportunities as allowing women to have “the best of both worlds” — a challenging career that leaves them plenty of time for their families. “You can work it around your family’s schedule so you don’t have to work your family around your work schedule,” says Lori Hupp, a Kansas City, Kansas, woman who is currently the seventh most successful Tupperware manager in the country.

Hupp, calling from Orlando while attending Jubilee, a national Tupperware sales conference, is a prime example of the modern Tupperware lady: Twelve years ago she was raising three young children and had no career when she went to a Tupperware party and got hooked. At the time, she says, she just wanted to meet new people, but she has since been able to buy a lake retreat for her family and put her daughter through college, in addition to qualifying for nine new cars that came complete with paid insurance.

But when asked for her take on how Tupperware became an American icon, Hupp hesitates. “I don’t know,” she says. “Our products have always been contemporary and relevant based on the customer’s need. Tupperware always has a way of knowing exactly what the customer wants — it stays on top of things.”

Spoken like a true salesperson (she’s not a top saleswoman for nothing). Although Tupperware parties aren’t likely to be hipster hangouts, there is a certain Tupperware mystique these days. The company has a cute pastel Web site for those who want to skip the party, and The New York Times has compared its career opportunities to trendy dot-com jobs. Its most successful L.A. salesperson reportedly is a drag queen named Pam Teflon. And it plays a guest role in one of the hottest books of the summer, Driving Mr. Albert, a true story about an octogenarian pathologist’s cross-country journey to return the brain of Albert Einstein (which he stole after autopsying Einstein 40 years ago) with said brain being transported in, of course, a Tupperware container.

This isn’t your mother’s Tupperware.