Who were Tupperware's dealers and distributors? They were not all suburban housewives -- the mythic image of "Tupperware Ladies." Many came from ethnic neighborhoods in big cities. They were first- and second-generation immigrants -- Greeks, Italians, Poles, Jews, Germans, French Canadians, and Puerto Ricans. And many were from rural America.
Who Sold Tupperware?
Tommy Damigella, Jr., who grew up in a Tupperware family, described Tupperware sellers as "aunts, uncles, cousins, anyone my family knew." People tapped into their own communities, and convinced the women they knew to get involved. Tupperware, with its low barriers to entry and its need for a constantly expanding pool of dealers, appealed especially to people with limited education, capital or other means to chase the American dream of wealth and success.
A Nation on the Move
During World War II many Americans moved from rural areas to cities and industrial sites. Others moved overseas, both as military personnel and as civilians. On a grand scale, Americans who once would never have met suddenly became bunkmates or co-workers.
Through all these changes, women retained important social networks, keeping up with other women through their churches, neighborhoods, and families. Female relatives still provided most child-care for absent mothers. These were the same sort of female networks that had shaped the 19th century anti-slavery and suffrage movements, contributed to the union movement of the early 20th century, and enabled women to move from country to city during the war. These connections would, in turn, be critical to Brownie Wise's marketing strategies, as she built the Tupperware home party business on top of relationships created at church socials and back-fence friendships.
Acceptance of Immigrants
In Homeward Bound, historian Elaine Tyler May wrote, "From a pre-war nation made up of many identifiable ethnic groups, postwar American society divided rigidly along the color line. Children of immigrants identified as outsiders before World War II became 'white' after the war, gaining access to the privileges and opportunities that whiteness bestowed." Especially for Jews and southern and eastern Europeans, the postwar years brought growing acceptance and opportunities to enter the mainstream middle class. Even with the lure of assimilation, those groups maintained their own civic, educational, and religious organizations, and certainly didn't mix in many ways, including marriage, until the 1960s.
Accessing the Dream
Tupperware made use of women's social networks. And the women who were dealers, managers, and distributors made use of Tupperware to assimilate and become part of America's consumer culture. As sociologist Nicole Biggart pointed out in her book Charismatic Capitalism: Direct Selling Organizations in America, direct sales work has been, and still is, especially appealing to women and men with no credentials and little wealth.
Optimism, Patriotism, Success
With no college education and very little money down, women from diverse backgrounds used their extended ethnic networks to sell Tupperware. At the same time, they embraced the rhetoric and material realities of becoming middle-class Americans. Company footage and literature is full of patriotic slogans and images. For the people who sold Tupperware, the company offered nothing less than a boost up the ladder to the American dream.
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?