There isn't a family in the Western world that doesn’t have a memory linked to Tupperware, the omnipresent plastic container for Sunday picnics, leftovers, and office lunches that, for countless women in the ‘50s, represented an unexpected opportunity for emancipation. The story of Tupperware then is a story of new possibilities, of industrial waste reborn as a new consumer product and of housewives in search of economic independence. At least according to canons of the era.
But let’s take things one at a time. Following the end of the Second World War, Earl Tupper began to design new products in plastic destined for the consumer market, starting from the oily slags of polyethylene. This was the birth of “Poly T”, a material easy to produce serially in a myriad of colors and forms, and the first Tupperware container, the Wonder Bowl — translucent and more resistant than any container before it. The new model even kept out air and water thanks to the double sealed Tupper lid, patented in 1947, which could be opened and closed with a simple pressure system.
When it was launched in 1946, the Wonder Bowl was defined by insiders as a new “icon of modern design” according to curator Shelley Nickles, who works often with the vast collection of Tupperware in the National Museum of American History, composed of over 100 pieces realized between 1946 and 1999.
Despite this, sales were disappointing: plastic was still an unknown material in the domestic world and the system to open and close Tupperware was greatly different from the glass and ceramic jars the public was accustomed to.
It’s here that Brownie Wise enters the story (a nickname owed to her big brown eyes), a thirty-something mother who lived in the periphery of Detroit, struggling as a secretary for Bendix Aviation and an anonymous columnist for the Detroit News. When a Stanley Home salesperson knocked at her door hoping to sell cleaning products, Wise realized that she could be a much better salesperson, and so she sent in an application.
At the time, the company was experimenting with new sales techniques for their products, organizing demonstrations during home parties with potential clients. In no time, Wise had earned enough to leave her position as a secretary.
After having understood that despite all her success, she would never hold a managerial position at Stanley Home (it wasn’t the “place for a woman” her boss at Stanley Frank Beveridge told her), she attempted a career with Tupperware, convinced of the potential of a colored, flexible, economic, and resistant object. Her parties were a success: the women participating fell for the fascination and security of Wise, buying with conviction and, with even more conviction, trying their own hands in sales.
By October 1949, Wise had already hired 19 new members and her team in Detroit had sold more Tupperware than many of the large warehouses. This was enough to earn her a meeting with Earl Tupper, convincing the entrepreneur — a practical and simple man — to create a new division dedicated exclusively to home parties, with Wise as a general manager.
“She was the yin to Tupper's yang,” wrote Bob Kealing in his book Tupperware Unsealed. Where he was demanding and solitary, Wise lived to socialize and inspire the workforce of resellers.
In 1952, the first year with a new division run by Wise, sales increased drastically, with orders surpassing 2 million dollars.
The saleswomen of Tupperware popped up throughout the USA, giving form to a female emancipation capable of growing without openly challenging the canons of society: they were all working women, but didn’t questioning the authority of their husbands or the status quo, working with a network of friends and neighbors while contributing to the family budget. Technically, none of the women were employed by Tupperware, but rather acted as private contractors that functioned collectively like the infrastructure between a company and consumer — a sort of ante litteram social network.
In the ‘50s, Tupperware products like the Wonder Bowl, Ice-Tup popsicle molds, and the Party Susan serving tray came to represent a new post-war lifestyle that rotated around fun and festivities. Wise soon became the public face of this attitude and of Tupperware as a whole, appearing on women’s magazines and commercials to advertise products and the corporate culture she had created.
The potentially perfect balance entered crisis when Wise became too famous for the products, at least according to Tupper. In January 1958, he and the board of directors fired Wise, who didn’t have a formal contract. After taking them to court, Wise received a single payment worth a year’s salary (nearly 30,000€) and Tupper sold the company.
Since then, the new owners of Tupperware have aimed to shine a light on Wise’s role in the product’s success: in 2016, they donated $200,000 to a park in Orlando near the company’s headquarters, naming it Brownie Wise Park, and inserting her decisive contribution into the company’s official history. Wise's greatest impact came, of course, in the business model she was able to create, which still acts as the foundation for multi-level marketing endeavors.