Now that I'm a homeowner with my/our own kitchen, I've begun accumulating my own collection of Tupperware. A few partitioned kiddie plates here, some leftover holders there. I actually want to buy the spaghetti dispenser I see on the cart at the local mall.

Why is this stuff still so popular? Why do our parents hold onto it like grim death and refuse to part with it except to allow us to inherit them? Why, one simple reason, of course:

It's guaranteed indestructible.

Babies can throw the plates on the kitchen floor without fear of breakage. Children can drop the cups on the counter and they bounce off. You can take them to picnics without worry. You can microwave it without melting, freeze it without cracking. It's cheaper than Pyrex and won't shatter when you drop it. And if it ever does crack or melt or tear, no matter how old it is, you can take it to a representative and get it replaced. Really.

Of course, it's not as attractive as glass or pottery or china. It's only plastic, after all. But if you have the kind of kitchen or household where things get dropped, knocked, bumped, tossed, moved, jostled, or elbowed on a regular basis -- in other words, if you have children -- this stuff is wonderful to have around.

Tupperware was first manufactured in 1939 by the Tupper Corporation. It wasn't called Tupperware at first, though. It started out with the rather silly name, "Poly-T, Material of the Future!" The exclamation point is mine, but the name fairly begs for it anyway.

Said name was given the plasticware by its inventor, Earl Silas Tupper, for its patent. He was a self-styled innovator who was looking to anticipate trends* and carry them to their natural conclusion, and the seven-ounce, injection-molded container his company began producing just before World War II would prove to be the trend he would anticipate most profitably.

The stuff started out in milky white only, but after ten years pastels were added to the line as well. These color changes were inspired by fruit and rocks. The line included Orange, Lemon, Lime, Raspberry, and Plum alongside Frosted Crystal, Ruby, Amber, and Sapphire Blue.

At first, the dominant strategy for distribution was fairly orthodox, but when department and hardware stores failed to sell the containers very well, Tupper's attention wandered for a superior sales method. He noticed that one company, Patio Parties, was ordering quite a bit of Tupperware. He subsequently hired its owner, a very intelligent saleswoman named Brownie Wise, to implement her "Party Plan" for selling housewares with the Tupper Corporation (Tupper himself never could have done this, as large gatherings of women reportedly made him physically ill). She did so, and under her plan the Tupperware line reached its peak penetration of American markets from 1951-1958. Over 20,000 women served in the Tupperware "party network" in the year 1954 as dealers, distributors, and managers.

This is where the Tupperware story takes a turn for the truly bizarre, in my estimation. It's odd that the previous writeups use the word "sacred" to describe Tupperware, since Brownie Wise brought quite a few strange, pseudo-occult practices to the corporation. When she appeared on the cover of Business Week (she was the first saleswoman to ever appear on their cover), she outlined her philosophy inside. "If we build the people, they'll build the business," she said. Her base of operations was separate from the main Tupper Corporation headquarters, too, and featured some... unique architecture and design choices. She designed the headquarters herself with a gleaming colonnaded building in the middle of well-manicured greenery and classical statuary. Inside, there was a "Walk of Fame" with stars bearing the names of successful past dealers. This walk led to "Poly Pond," which Wise had consecrated by throwing a handful of raw polystyrene pellets into it and which she typically used to baptize her underlings with "Tupper Magic." No kidding.

There was also a Tupperware Museum of Dishes located in the same building, featuring all the containers of American history, concluding with a dramatically lit display of Tupperware dishes. In the foyer, one could look at the forty foot mural called "The Evolution of Dishes" before proceeding to the "Consumer Lounge," where stylized Tupperware products float over a black velvet background.

Wise also gave enormous parties in her custom-made compound. She gave "Tupperware Homecoming Jubilees" annually, giving out gifts and singing songs on her extensive headquarters grounds while the women she hosted (inexplicably dressed in cowboy and Indian outfits) dug for gifts she had buried in the ground. In 1954, she also had a Methodist preacher come and extol the virtues of Tupperware as a valuable tool in the fight against communism. At the same gathering, she had a gold-adorned "Wish Fairy" who gave out expensive consumer goods to her guests. These weren't the only institutions that coalesced around the Tupperware line; there was also the Tupper College of Knowledge, where graduates matriculated to the soft strains of choral music and received a very nice diploma, medal, and a copy of Best Wishes, Brownie Wise, Wise's autobiography.

This all only lasted until 1958, however, when Earl Tupper sold the corporation to Rexall Drug Company and Brownie Wise was fired by the new owners. She began her own company with her $30,000 severance fee, based around the party plan and devoted to selling cosmetics. Earl Tupper went on to serve on the executive board of the company when he stopped heading it. Tupperware parties are no longer the exclusive method of distribution, although they have certainly survived, albeit without the weirdly religious, secret society-style trappings associated with the product and its main proponent, Brownie Wise.

*Tupper successfully anticipated other trends as well; in 1937 he produced a line of nail decals to be sold to women in department stores. Featured designs included Valentines, shamrocks, and initials (intended to belong to the woman or her boyfriend). Although Tupper's target demographic was different, this invention has either survived to or was reinvented for the modern day in the form of the nail decals I've seen preteen girls wear.

Source: Clarke, Alison J. "Tupperware: Suburbia, Sociality and Mass Consumption" in Visions of Suburbia, ed. by Roger Silverstone. Routledge. London, 1997.

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