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October 8, 2002

A public radio commentary

Listen carefully, here's a sound heard millions of times a day. Here it is. Again. That's the "burp" of tupperware, the plastic containers used to store food.

Tupperware began with Earl S. Tupper, once described as a "failed tree surgeon and archetypal reader of the Reader's Digest." Who, also "combined faith in technological progress." Yet had a "Protestant conservative's suspicion of bar-hopping men and cigarette-smoking women." Tupper was also a prolific inventor of bizarre gadgets: A "knee-action Gypsy Gun", which explosively removed gypsy-moth eggs from trees, and self-standing toothpaste and shaving-cream dispensers.

Tupper spent a couple of years in the 1930s as an engineer at DuPont, where he came across a new plastic called polyethylene, with his inventive and oddball mind, he saw many uses for this plastic. So, in 1939 Tupper talked his bosses into selling him a few tons of the stuff cheaply.

Then, on a farm in a tiny Massachusetts town, Tupper pioneered thermosetting plastics: By heating the plastic he made it pliable and moldable. The trick was to find just the right amount of heat so the plastic became like chewing gun and could be slapping into shape, but not so much heat that the plastic melted.

After three years of trial and error Tupper finally made a simple tumbler, but sales of it and other items were poor. To really become part of our national culture, as it did in the 1950s, Tupperware needed to tap deeply into our traditions and anxieties. Subliminally tupperware resonated with America's fears in the 1950s because it kept food from rotting in fallout shelters. But tapping into America's traditions was beyond Tupper himself, so in 1954 he hired Brownie Wise - a women with an intuitive grasp of female popular culture.

Wise, a single mother from Detroit, pioneered Tupperware's famous "Hostess Parties"; where a hostess, usually a housewife, gathered a dozen or so women in her house and demonstrated tupperware. In these parties Wise grafted the selling of tupperware onto the American traditions of sewing circles and quilting bees. And she tapped into the psyche of the new suburban housewife: The parties took advantage of the isolation and neurotic sense of social obligation among suburban women in the 1950s. A feminist called these parties a "form of organizational parasitism analogous to ... colonialism which [used] ... the existing tribal structure ...." But within this "tribal" system Brownie Wise was so successful that by 1954 Tupperware sales topped fifty four million dollars - and made her the first woman on the cover of Business Week. And today there is a tupperware party somewhere in the world every two point two seconds.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises