Earl Tupper was a dreamer and a tinkerer who liked to improve the things he saw around him. Always devising better gadgets and gizmos, Tupper held equally strong opinions about how to improve the people around him. Born to a poor farming family, he aspired to be a millionaire and a famous inventor, and he achieved both goals.
Born in 1907 in New Hampshire, Tupper moved many times in his youth, growing up on farms in central Massachusetts. His mother, Lulu, took in laundry and boarders, while his father, Ernest, a good-natured tinkerer who lacked ambition, operated the family farm without much success. Young Earl was enterprising from an early age. At the age of ten, he started a business selling the family's produce door-to-door. When he was a teenager, he had little patience and much contempt for his father's lack of drive. Eventually his parents set up a greenhouse in Shirley, Massachusetts, where they offered the biggest selection of geraniums in the area.
Looking to the Future
Never much of a student, Tupper barely graduated from high school in 1925. After graduating he worked for his parents and took on odd jobs. He also took a series of correspondence courses. While taking a course in advertising, he concluded that advertising was the wave of the future, and he tried unsuccessfully to get his parents to be more aggressive about marketing. He wanted them to offer a "kiddies' free playland" on the grounds of their greenhouse -- an idea that was perhaps ahead of its time.
Tupper also kept an illustrated notebook of his inventions. He fancied himself to be a latter-day Leonardo da Vinci. His "inventions" were wide-ranging. They included a better stocking garter, a dagger-shaped comb to be clipped to one's belt, pants that wouldn't lose their crease, and a fish-powered boat. He devised a convertible top for a rumble seat, customized cigarettes with names like "sporty" and "the collegiate," a better way to take out a burst appendix, and hundreds of other innovations.
He doggedly tried to sell his inventions, but had little luck. To support himself, he set up a tree surgery and landscaping business. He married Marie Whitcomb in 1931, and the first of their five children was born a few years later. During the Depression, however, Tupper's clients cut back, and Tupper Tree Doctors was forced into bankruptcy in 1936. Earl Tupper was lucky to get a job in one of the plastics factories in Leominster, Massachusetts.
Leominster, once famous for its comb industry, had made the switch to plastic in the late 19th century, and there were many small plastics factories run by self-taught engineer/inventors. It was a great place for Tupper. After one year working for the Viscaloid plant (the plastics manufacturing division of DuPont), Tupper bought a few used molding machines and began making beads and plastic containers for cigarettes and soap. He called his company Tupper Plastics.
After World War II, Tupper received a block of polyethylene from DuPont, which was hoping plastics manufacturers would invent peacetime uses for the new material the company had developed during the war. Tupper tinkered with his molding machines for months. DuPont had added fillers to the polyethylene to firm it up and it was difficult to mold. Tupper asked DuPont for some pure polyethylene pellets instead. They were skeptical, but after much trial and error, Tupper produced the first of his Tupperware bowls.
Tupper started marketing his products as giveaways with cigarettes. Eventually they made it into department stores. He even opened a showroom on Fifth Avenue in New York. His Tupperware "wonderbowl" -- with its patented burping seal -- won design prizes. He advertised widely. But he wasn't doing very well financially.
A Sales Force
The person who transformed Tupperware into a marketing empire was Brownie Wise -- a single mother with no formal business training. She had started selling huge quantities of Tupperware at home parties, and when Earl Tupper noticed the sales figures in 1951, he invited her to visit Massachusetts. The result: he decided to sell Tupperware exclusively through home parties and to make Wise his company's vice president and head of all sales. While he continued to invent and produce Tupperware in Massachusetts, Wise became the boss at Tupperware Home Parties Inc. in Florida.
No Nonsense Meets Razzamatazz
Brownie Wise and Earl Tupper were an odd, but perfect, match. She was flamboyant and extroverted; he was reclusive and secretive. She was good with people; he was good with machines. He knew how to produce things, and she knew how to sell them. The cultures of the two companies, Tupper Plastics and Tupperware Home Parties, reflected their distinct personalities. While Wise prodded on her exuberant salesforce and engineered hoopla and razzamatazz in Florida, Tupper ran a tight ship with no-nonsense engineers and factory workers in New England.
People who worked closely with Earl Tupper tell stories about his eccentricities and perfectionism. Tupper micromanaged his factory, demanded the strictest quality control, and had little tolerance for human error. While most factory owners paint the corners of their factory floors black to hide dirt, Tupper painted his bright white, to reveal every speck of dirt.
Tupper designed every new piece of Tupperware himself. He worked closely with his most trusted machine men and he set up demonstration kitchens where his products could be tested at the factory in New England and at Tupperware Home Parties in Florida. He also asked his wife, his mother and his aunts to try out his new inventions.
For nearly eight years, Tupper let Wise run her Tupperware Home Party operation without much interference. As the company grew, so did Wise's celebrity. The company had purposely put Wise up on a pedestal as a wonder woman salesperson. But when the press suggested Wise was responsible for Tupperware's success, and that she could be equally successful selling any product, Tupper couldn't stand it any longer. He had been approached by larger companies that wanted to buy Tupperware, and he was tempted to sell out. Tupper was also being told that the Internal Revenue Service would tax his children heavily if he died as sole owner of Tupperware. His accountants told him he could avoid this if he would form a board that controlled the company, but he refused.
In 1958, Earl Tupper unceremoniously and abruptly kicked Brownie Wise out of the company. He didn't give any reasons. Within a year, Tupper sold out to Justin Dart of Rexall Drug Company for $16 million, and also divorced his wife. He bought himself an island in Central America, and eventually moved to Costa Rica, giving up his U.S. citizenship to avoid taxes.
Still an Inventor
Tupper continued to invent gadgets and other devices, but none of his new inventions took off. To the end of his life, he carried little pads of paper in his shirt pocket, on which he scribbled down ideas for new inventions. His sons tell stories of their father jotting notes about better hospital gurneys while being wheeled in to the operating room. He also devised a round stove, and a clothes-washing exercise cylinder for the traveling salesperson.
At the age of 71, he wrote in an autobiographical essay, "I'm ready to really go to work... so we older people don't look so lazy and stupid to our children and grandchildren, or to space visitors who will certainly be landing here one day and putting the torch to 75% of us, considering us to be worthless and damned poor breeding stock for the future."
Earl Tupper died in 1983. The patents on many of his classic Tupperware products ran out in the 1980s, but his design ideas still influence the plastics industry, the food industry, and the lives of people around the world who store their food in plastic containers with lids that seal.
My American Experience
What do you think of the Tupperware story? What's your opinion of the postwar consumer boom, the rise of plastics, and other events of the 1950s? Has Tupperware affected you?