Scholar discusses the women of Tupperware
Telling the story of an unlikely partnership between two underdog businesspeople, Laurie Kahn’s “Tupperware!” brought viewers back to an unknown moment in the 1950s. Kahn, a Women’s Studies Research Center resident scholar, screened the film at the WSRC on Tuesday and led a Q&A afterwards.
Earl Tupper grew up poor in central Massachusetts during the 1900s but refused to give up on his dream of being a millionaire, inventing dozens of devices despite never graduating high school and continually failing to sell his inventions. After WWII, he started his own plastics factory and tried to mold pure polyethylene tablets into a new plastic product. At the time, no one believed that these tablets could be molded, but Tupper defied the odds and invented Tupperware and its “burping” seal. Tupper now had a unique product; however, he was not a people person and struggled with lifting off sales of his invention.
Then, along came Brownie Wise. Wise was trapped in an unhappy marriage and caring for an infant son and, as a woman in 1950s Detroit, could not do any work outside the home due to societal restrictions. She got involved with Stanley Home Products, which sold home appliance products door-to-door, and became a star in the business. Though there were many door-to-door product sellers, Stanley was unique in that it enlisted women to sell its products at parties. When Wise and another Stanley worker, Gary McDonald, saw Tupperware at a department store, they knew they had found something special. Wise contacted Tupper to suggest he sell his product at women-led parties, and Tupper agreed.
These two “could-nots” came together and created a massive empire driven by Wise and the women leaders of the so-called “Tupperware Parties.” Kahn’s film told the story of Wise and her Tupperware empire.
During WWII, women worked in defense factories and were celebrated for their achievements in helping the country and war effort. However, after the war’s end, according to Kahn’s film, “women got a clear message: Go back to the kitchen.” Women could not leave the home because they were taking care of their children and thus could not make money of their own to satisfy their wants and needs. The economy of the 1950s, though, was booming, and “women who’d done without now wanted a piece of the pie.”
Wise’s Tupperware parties changed the income power dynamic, as the hostess would get to keep a portion of the profits and use it to buy products she wanted. Sylvia Boyd, a Tupperware distributor, elaborated, “When we were recruiting people, we tried to fill a need for something that they wanted, like … new carpet or … a new refrigerator, and then we would map out for them how many parties they would have to hold in order to get whatever it is that they wanted.”
The parties also provided a social escape, as women could invite their networks of friends in order to sell them Tupperware. The social aspect of the Tupperware Parties allowed women to sell to other women like them and do relatable marketing that other companies could not. “They were selling to themselves. They were selling to people with the same needs, same budget that they had,” stated Tom Tate, the son of a Tupperware distributor.
Kahn touched on Tupperware’s impact on female opportunity. She explained, “Tupperware, or home-party selling, thrives wherever women don’t have many opportunities. Here’s something that they could do part-time — they can control their own hours and not threaten their husbands.”
Though women gained more power through the Tupperware Parties, many husbands were opposed to their wives working outside the home. Some organizers tried to convince the husbands by saying that their wives would not overtake them in personal wealth, and it would be beneficial for their households. One Tupperware distributor, Anna Tate, stated during the film that she told the husbands, “You bring in the bread; you’re the breadwinner, but she can bring in a little cake.”
Soon, women and their husbands began to rise in the company ranks as managers and distributors. Their husbands would quit their jobs to work in Tupperware, and the families would move anywhere in the country where the company needed workers. Though women did gain more power in the company, all of the executives, save Wise, were men. Tate’s son, Tom, stated that Wise was “realistic enough to know that at some level, bankers don’t talk to women.”
After years working together, Wise and Tupper’s relationship began to sour. Wise became exhausted with constantly being in the spotlight, and she and Tupper had a series of disagreements which led to her being fired in 1958.
Even though she was the backbone of Tupperware, Wise was left with no wealth. She started a cosmetics company, Cinderella Cosmetics, but the company failed a year after its founding because one of Tupperware’s executives discouraged Tupperware women from following Wise. Tony Ponticelli, a Tupperware staff member, said of Wise, “She was an idol on a pedestal. From that day on, she fell off that pedestal.”
During the talkback, Kahn continued to discuss Wise’s firing and the failure of Cinderella Cosmetics. When the executive told women at Tupperware they could follow Wise to Cinderella Cosmetics, Kahn stated, not one of them left the room, because Tupperware “was their bread and butter, because it was successful, because they had friends.” Kahn added that Wise was disadvantaged from the outset, as she had an 8th grade education and knew nothing about the financial aspect of companies, which were factors in Cinderella Cosmetics’ short life.
Tupperware, Kahn states, changed women’s lives, because the company received recognition they had never had, even if it was through arcane feminine stereotypes. “These women subverted the system from inside the system. … These women never got recognized. … Someone thinking about how to make life fun for you, and recognize you for what you’ve done, wasn’t happening for women.”