How Tupperware Became the Original Social Network of 1950s Suburbia

This week we’re running online for the first time six pieces from our past issues of Eye on Design magazine. This story was originally published in the “Gossip” issue.

 

A frosted plastic bowl filled with purple grape juice flies across the living room of an American suburban home. Not a drop is spilled.

It’s the 1950s. This unlikely game of catch is played by a cohort of housewives gathered around a table stacked with an assortment of fruit-colored kitchenware. Afterward, they complain about their husbands and children, then swap recipes for Spring Glow Angel Cake (cake mix with peach pie filling) and Spring Vegetable Salad (veggies set in Jell-O). As the activities come to an end, enthused guests leave with plastic kitchenware under their arms: strawberry and plum Wonder Bowls and Econo-Canisters, sapphire-blue TV Tumblers with matching drink stirrers, Ice-Tup popsicle molds, and Party Susan divided serving trays.

Scenes like this unfolded across America in the 1950s as women embraced the Tupperware Party—an in-person, semiformal marketing strategy that made the company’s Wonder Bowls as synonymous with the idea of retro suburbia as turquoise Cadillacs and the Avon lady. Today, it’s still estimated that a new Tupperware Party takes place every 2.5 seconds, and in 2016, Tupperware sales totaled $2.21 billion.

The 1950s are often referred to as the “golden age” of mass advertising. It was a time of snappy copy and illustrated campaigns dreamt up by the ad masters of Madison Ave. But unlike Lucky Strike or Coca-Cola, Tupperware didn’t become a classic through print ads and billboards; the kitchenware made its name in the living room, amidst circles of friends and an atmosphere of camaraderie. The home party plan, executed by Tupperware’s vice president of marketing, Brownie Wise, was a system based on social connections, one that proved far more effective for the company than any established forms of marketing. Indeed, the monumental rise of Tupperware was the result of a strategy familiar to today’s social media-fueled companies—networking, sponsored content, and influencer endorsements. 

The monumental rise of Tupperware was the result of a strategy familiar to today’s social media-fueled companies—networking, sponsored content, and influencer endorsements. 

When Earl Tupper invented his first line of flexible, translucent plastic containers in the 1940s by purifying a waste product of the oil refining process, he saw great promise; he called his polyethylene “Poly-T: Material of the Future.” But while his patented airtight seal could keep leftovers like lettuce leaves fresh and crisp for days on end, no amount of clever campaigning could convince the post-war consumer to bring plastic into the kitchen. It was an alien substance—one associated with dirty oil and industry—and the seal had to be “burped” in order to close properly, a confusing concept for people used to snapping shut glass jars.

Introduced to the public in 1947, Tupperware languished on department store shelves until in 1949 Wise, a recently divorced mother and former newspaper columnist, began selling impressive numbers of the containers door-to-door in her suburban Florida neighborhood. Her business was called Patio Parties, and it used a sales strategy pioneered by companies like Stanley Home Products, where sellers would demonstrate novel designs at planned domestic events.

Through Patio Parties, Wise recruited friends to peddle various products from direct-sales companies, including brushes, brooms, and Poly-T, and then took a slice of the profits. One woman sold 56 Wonder Bowls in a single week. 

Irrepressibly charismatic, Wise believed that the best way to sell was through home demonstrations and socializing; her method was entirely grassroots, based on a tradition of door-to-door salesmanship rather than corporate notions of marketing. At her parties, Wise would not only show women how to burp a Wonder Bowl seal she’d suggest what they could cook inside it and offer them other domestic and personal advice.

“Wise didn’t invent the party home model, but she refined and feminized it,” says design historian Alison J. Clarke, author of Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America. “She focused on the positive idea of gossip and getting together. At one of her parties, sales were made secondary (or at least were seen to be).”

Tupper noticed how quickly Wise was moving his product compared to department stores and other independent sellers. In 1951, he asked her to become vice president of marketing for the Tupperware Company and to spearhead a new home party plan. The company put an end to distributing in department stores and focused purely on home selling strategies. “What’s incredible is that after only a few years using Wise’s home party plan, plastic kitchenware went from being virtually nonexistent to being prevalent in people’s homes and lives,” says Clarke. “And it wasn’t because of good advertising. It was because of women talking to other women.”

By 1954, largely by word-of-mouth, the company had recruited 20,000 private contractors to work as dealers or distributors across the United States. Dealers would reach out to their personal networks to find potential party hostesses (or even other dealers)—their hairdresser or real estate agent or a mother from the local church group. In return for providing her home and social network, a party hostess would then receive merchandise as a special thank you. To mark Tupperware’s rocketing success, Wise became the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week in 1954. “If we build the people, they’ll build the business,” she proudly asserted.

Signs at a Tupperware event. Courtesy of the Brownie Wise Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

With Wise at the helm, Tupperware began placing aspirational advertisements in women’s magazines to recruit new dealers. The scenes depicted smiling, upper middle-class suburban housewives earning cash independently by simply socializing with their friends. “These images weren’t indicative of the people that were actually selling Tupperware, though,” says Clarke. “Many dealers were divorcees like Wise, or working-class women from diverse ethnic groups. On the flip side of those ads was the real 1950s America.” The party plan relied on social networks, which meant a dealer could tailor an event to the needs and culture of her local community; this ability to adapt and mold a party is what made the marketing strategy so effective.

Recruitment campaigns in women’s magazines and later on television promised not just modern kitchenware, but a fabulous lifestyle of fun, sorority, and additional income. By the mid ’50s, potential new dealers across the United States were given Dorothy Dealer’s Dating Diary, a full-color cartoon booklet containing sales advice. It dissuaded women from adopting a corporate image and encouraged them to use their own personality and social skills to charm friends and neighbors. If a potential hostess had a reluctant husband, one less than keen on having a group of women in his house, Dorothy Dealer suggested that the wife appeal to his rational side: The money saved from all the free gifts would far outweigh a small inconvenience.

A typical ’50s Tupperware Party animated its products and encouraged bonding; guests would toss bowls around the room to test durability, and dealers would stand on top of containers in impressive balancing acts. Games like Waist Measurement, Game of Gossip, and Chatter focused on stereotypically feminine concerns, while Elastic Relay and Partner Balloon Burst required close contact. A game called Hubby asked women to write and then read aloud an imaginary newspaper advertisement selling their husband (one example cited in Clarke’s book reads: “One husband for sale. Balding, often cranky, stomach requiring considerable attention!”).

Intimacy is a powerful tool for selling and manipulation.

These activities took advantage of women’s relationships to one another: Intimacy is a powerful tool for selling and manipulation. Wise’s games required women to physically touch and swap personal secrets, and it’s no surprise that when inhibitions are broken and people bond, they are far more likely to make purchases. While its exploitative nature is evident, Tupperware parties also subversively created a space for women to vent frustrations under the pretext of a domestic chore. In 1950s suburban America, there were few other excuses for all-female gatherings of this kind, especially ones in which women played games and talked about how terrible their partners were.

The company started publishing a monthly newspaper called Tupperware Sparks to spread motivational stories and community news to the Tupperware women. It often featured photographs of Wise on the cover, as well as images of her pink canary, convertible, pet palomino pony, and luxury lakeside mansion. Wise developed elaborate incentive schemes and eliminated high-pressure and competitive sales strategies from her marketing model. Instead, with motivational rhetoric and a philosophy of positive thinking, she gave her dealers a feeling of hope and sorority. Free gifts encouraged them to collaborate and bond, as did lavish pep rallies and retreats thrown at the grand Tupperware headquarters in Florida.



Clad in a silk dress and pearls, Wise would award extravagant prizes to her high-achieving Tupperware women. Mink coats, diamond rings, and couture dresses were not uncommon—romantic gifts just like those showered on Marilyn Monroe in How to Marry a Millionaire. Hundreds of Tupperware women would line up outside the headquarters’ Poly Pond to dip their hands into its “sacred” water, which Wise sprinkled with polyethylene pellets to give it that special “Tupper Magic.” Wise also carried a black chunk of polyethylene known as Poly around with her; she said it was the original slag Tupper had used for his experiments, and she encouraged dealers to rub Poly and make a wish. According to oral histories, Wise’s events consolidated women’s feeling of belonging to the “Tupperware family,” and greatly enhanced feelings of self-esteem.

“Her plan didn’t follow a pyramid scheme. Wise created a network that ran a lot like a sorority; women would attend a party so their friend could get free gifts, and top-dealers would encourage other women to grow their network rather than compete with one another,” emphasizes Clarke. “It was charisma, ritual, gossip and sociality that made Tupperware successful: It’s what motivated people.”

“It was charisma, ritual, gossip and sociality that made Tupperware successful.”

When Wise first brought selling into the home, it certainly felt like the shopping experience of the future. But it was not yet clear how prophetic her vision would turn out to be. While Mad Men were pouring energy into full-color billboards and catchy jingles for the radio, Wise recognized the untapped value of suburban influencers, personal endorsements, and social networks. Ultimately though, her endeavour was full of contradictions: Tupperware enabled women to participate in business while balancing homemaking, but it bound them to a flexible contract; it provided women with a space for conversation, but also made it a space of sales. It recognized the value of invisible female labor in the ’50s—of caretaking, social planning, and housekeeping—but it transformed that labor into a profit-making enterprise. The party plan capitalized on precedents for all-female gatherings like the sewing circle and quilting bee, and it, too, became a focal point for social activity and companionship.

Tupper eventually dismissed Wise in 1958 and then sold the company. He was suspicious of Wise’s cult-like status and “megalomaniacal” leadership style, and deeply jealous of the fact that people attributed Tupperware’s success to her. Since the mid ’50s, he’d been been trying to put an end to the home party plan so that his product could enter a conventional and more “legitimate” sales arena. Tupper could not control the spread and content of word-of-mouth networks in the same way he could the spread of a paid advertisement. And the parties likely raised for him the same questions that they did for many men at the time: What were women really doing and saying when gathered around the kitchen table?

In the late ’50s, the Tupperware Corporation attempted to tap into a European market using mass advertising tactics, but its attempts gained little traction. Instead, “black market” Tupperware parties sprang up across the continent, as wives of army officers stationed in Europe brought bulk stock overseas to sell in their neighborhoods. In 1960, the company finally caved and officially took its home party plan abroad. The news of Tupperware traveled internationally by word-of-mouth; and Wise’s influence, games, and rhetoric spread across new cities and suburbs.

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