In 1950, few people had heard of Tupperware -- in fact, many were skeptical of plastic food containers, which were known to peel and smell. The earliest dealers set out to disprove this reputation, booking parties with friends and family to demonstrate the merits of Earl Tupper's innovative bowls. Many women got involved in the business after being guests at these parties. Tupperware dealer Li Walker recalled, "I had a friend and she was going to have a Tupperware party, so I went. I didn't buy very much but I thought, that's a pretty good way to make money."
Exploiting Social Networks
Many new dealers did not see instant results. In the early 1950s, as a young and still developing company, Tupperware Home Parties offered very little official training. Many fledgling Tupperware dealers found a willing and sympathetic first hostess in a close friend or a family member. It was these connections with female friends and relatives that usually got a Tupperware dealer's new business off the ground. Lavon Weber found her small rural community a great help for her business: "A neighbor who lived half a mile from me said, 'I'll help get you started in Hugoton,' and we dated two or three parties there that day. And then my mother said she'd have a party, and some of my sister-in-laws. I'd go to church and people would say, 'I hear you're selling something,' and I said yes. 'Well, I'll have a party for you.'"
A Flexible Job
However humble their beginnings were, most of the women who sold Tupperware enjoyed selling because they were able to make money they needed, and they could control their own work hours. A Tupperware dealer could give two or three parties a day, still see her family off in the morning, and greet the kids when they returned from school. In fact, this flexibility legitimized the business not only for the women, but also for skeptical husbands who didn't like the idea of their wives working. When they saw the financial fruits of their wives' sales, most of their protests tapered off.
Being a Tupperware dealer involved more than just demonstrating the product. After her demonstration, a dealer would have to find hostesses who were willing to "date" future parties. The hostess agreed to invite her friends and family to a Tupperware party and in return, she would receive a "hostess gift" -- anything from a crock pot to an electric hair dryer. One party would lead to another, and good dealers dated lots of future parties as they were selling. If someone brought a friend or relative from a different neighborhood, church or social group, it was an opportunity to branch out and start a whole new chain of parties. In addition, a Tupperware dealer was always on the lookout for new recruits -- potential dealers to bring into the business. Oftentimes, party hostesses and eager party guests were tapped to become dealers.
For most dealers, selling Tupperware, dating new parties, and finding the occasional recruit were enough. The majority of women who worked for Tupperware were simply dealers, taking home some extra money from the commissions they received for their party sales. Many women stayed in the business just long enough to buy the things they wanted. Early Tupperware dealer Jo Divelis remembers returning to the business when she found out her kids needed braces, while others got out after they earned enough for a television or new carpet.
Some women stayed in the business longer, rising through the ranks. Distributor Sylvia Boyd explained, "When I had six people and a date book with three to five parties a week in it, I could be promoted [from dealer] to manager. As a manager, I got this added commission on my unit, and I trained [my dealers], motivated them and got them to sales rallies." A full-time manager with a large unit could make a sizeable income, be featured in the company newsletter, "Tupperware Sparks," and were usually the big winners at Tupperware's annual Jubilees.
Enter the Husbands
After several years as a successful manager, an employee had a shot at becoming a distributor. Distributors were given exclusive rights to sell Tupperware in a specific region of the country -- and they oversaw the work of all the dealers and managers in that region. "To move up to distributor," Sylvia Boyd recalled, "That was a longer haul. I really had to be one of the top managers in the country." And there was another catch -- distributorship offers were made to top managers and their husbands, and could only be accepted if a manager's husband agreed to quit his job and join his wife full-time in the business. During this era, banks rarely made business loans to women, and married women rarely had bank accounts in their own names. In most cases, the Tupperware-selling wife was already making more money than her husband, and the financial prospects for distributor couples were excellent in the 1950s and 1960s.
On the Move
Under these circumstances, most managers jumped at the opportunity to further their Tupperware careers, and over the years, hundreds of Tupperware families sold their houses, packed the kids into the car, and drove off to whatever place Tupperware decided to send them as the company tried to fill in the map. The first things that new distributors did were rent a warehouse and begin holding sales rallies. Some distributors moved to regions where there were already dealers and managers. But others had to recruit from scratch -- knocking on doors cold, convincing people to get into the business.
Monday Morning Rallies
Every Monday morning, distributors would fill their warehouses with managers and dealers to introduce new promotions and to recognize their top sellers. At these rallies, distributors mimicked the company's Jubilees on a much smaller stage, giving out prizes for high sales and recruiting, introducing new competitions, and offering tips on salesmanship.
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?