- Entrepreneur Brownie Wise*Selling Tupperware to America's Women in the 1950s
Every 2.5 seconds, somewhere in the world a Tupperware party is taking place; women meet in each other's houses to sell Tupperware, colorful plastic containers, to their friends. They are part of Tupperware's global sales force of almost two million in one hundred countries, generating sales of $2.2 billion in 2008.1 This is the legacy of Brownie Wise, who, in the 1950s, invented the "Tupperware Party," creating a multi-million dollar international business and becoming the first woman ever to appear on the cover of Business Week.2
Wise intuitively understood the postwar social and economic context—restrictive gender roles, increased consumerism, and the suburbanization of America—as she developed Tupperware's unique distribution plan and corporate structure. Building and expanding on the idea of positive thinking, Wise's marketing strategies of home parties, lavish incentives, and annual celebrations for top salespeople made Tupperware hugely successful. She promised women a way to balance society's expectations of them as wives, mothers, and homemakers with their desire for economic autonomy and self-realization. Although Tupperware promoted female domesticity and affirmed traditional gender roles, it also gave millions of women the opportunity to be successful entrepreneurs outside the conventional work place, where men still dominated.3
The Domestication of Plastic
Tupperware was the right product at the right time. In the 1940s, Earl Tupper, a subcontractor for DuPont's plastics war production, started tinkering with polyethylene to develop a product for the commercial market. By 1947, he had invented two new products: a tough, nonporous, and nonsmelling substance, unlike any other consumer plastic product, and the "Tupper seal, an airtight, watertight lid."4 The result was Tupperware: a line of pliable, shatterproof, heat-, and acid-resistant food storage containers.5
Yet, beyond its usefulness, Tupperware was also marketed as a modern, beautiful, and glamorous object, the result of innovative technological development. Listing over one hundred patents filed domestically and [End Page 171] abroad, Tupperware's manual quotes from a 1948 House Beautiful article: "Striving to make a perfect plastic refrigerator bowl, [Tupper] achieved, as a by-product … objects of great beauty" that not only satisfied "super-critical scientific laboratories and medical institutions" but also looked "like art objects … with the fingering qualities of jade."6 Thus, Tupperware was an inexpensive, high-tech, fun, and stylish product that affirmed women in their role as competent and efficient career homemakers. Because Tupperware constantly created new and better products, housewives could easily replace their old plastic items, allowing them to partake in the American dream of constantly improving their families' lives. According to social historian Jeffrey Meikle, because plastic was cheap and novel, it was the ideal material to create mass products that not only drove the post-war consumer boom but also embodied it.7
Brownie Wise: Inventor of Tupperware Home Parties
Still, despite its qualities and accolades in women's magazines, Tupperware was not "flying" off department store shelves. Consumers refused to spend money on a product that reminded them of shoddy war-time plastics because "there have been too many bum articles called plastic."8 Moreover, women did not know how to use the bowls and returned them to the stores because "the lids didn't fit."9 A new marketing and distribution plan was sorely needed.
Enter Brownie Wise, a flamboyant divorcee who had been selling cleaning aids for Stanley Products at home parties. Without any formal sales training and not more than an eighth-grade education, she realized that Tupperware's fun features, such as the "whispered seal of freshness" or the fact that one could throw it across a room without breaking, could not be demonstrated in department stores.10 Within a short time, she sold more Tupperware at home parties than all department stores combined. Tupper was impressed and in 1951 made her vice president of marketing for the company.11
Wise soon created Tupperware Home Parties Inc. (THP) with its unique Home Party Plan and corporate structure.12 The plan used ordinary homemakers rather than professional salespeople and involved several levels of selling, with women moving...