In late 1951, inventor Earl Tupper bought a thousand acres of cow pasture and swamp in Kissimmee, just outside the quiet farm town of Orlando, Florida. There, he and his new vice president and general manager, Brownie Wise, broke ground for the Tupperware Home Parties Inc. headquarters. Twenty years before Disney would transform central Florida into a booming vacation spot, Orlando and Kissimmee were small communities whose largest export was Brahmin cattle. The arrival of Tupperware Home Parties was big news.
Small Staff, Hard Work
Tupperware Home Parties (T.H.P.), which Tupper had established in April 1951, employed a tiny but dedicated staff working near the Tupperware factory in central Massachusetts. Wise, however, was eager to set up the sales operation in Florida. She and her team opened temporary offices in an unused airplane hangar in Orlando and enthusiastically went to work. Staff member Gary McDonald recalled working day and night those first months, establishing new distributorships in untapped areas of the country, writing a sales manual called Know How, and creating recruiting promotions to expand the company's sales force.
Very few members of the staff had ever been to college. Wise herself had never gotten past eighth grade. No one knew the standard business models, so the company invented itself by the seat of its pants. Staff meetings with Wise were brainstorming sessions that included the groundskeeper and the head of the model kitchen, as well as the heads of conventional departments like sales promotion and public relations. Wise presided from a peacock chair. Gary McDonald remembered, "Everybody attended and everybody put in their two cents. There was no idea that was too absurd and nothing was impossible."
Wise and her staff took the model of Stanley Home Products as a starting point. Then they improvised thousands of improvements, in their relations to their sales force, their public relations efforts, the rewards they offered, and the ways they operated. Although the company was small, they planned big.
Stanley Home Parties had always held its annual meeting in Stanley Park, in western Massachusetts. This clearly influenced Wise, who transformed the Tupperware headquarters into a fantasy landscape for her salespeople. She created The Garden That Loyalty Built, Poly Pond, The Pavilion (where classes and seminars were held), and The Wishing Well -- a stone wishing well where salespeople were invited to toss in their wishes inside two-ounce Tupperware containers.
Recognition and Publicity
The Tupperware staff realized it was crucial to stay in touch with their sales force in the field. Early on, the small public relations staff began publishing Tupperware Sparks, T.H.P.'s monthly circular. PR director Charlie McBurney explained, "Sparks was a recognition piece more than anything else. Sure, it had news [and] promotions. But the main thing was to get names and pictures in." Its pages overflowed with snapshots of saleswomen across the country, posing with prizes won for high sales and for large numbers of recruits. The public relations staff also sent these photos to local papers around the country, which were delighted to publish the news that a woman from their town had just won a trip, a car, or another big prize. Tupperware paid much less for advertising than most companies selling consumer products. Instead, they created events that attracted free publicity.
A Visit from the "First Lady"
To further encourage their dealers, the Tupperware staff came up with creative and catchy promotions in which Tupperware dealers competed for everything from new electric irons to a trip to Europe with Brownie Wise. Distributorships ("ships" in the lingo of the business) competed against each other to win a coveted visit from Tupperware's "First Lady." "Brownie mesmerized her audience," staff member Tony Ponticelli remembered. "You could hear a pin drop when she got up to speak." Onstage and off, Wise would pull out all the stops, offering to give away the very dresses, shoes, and even petticoats she was wearing as prizes. The audience ate it up, and T.H.P. began to bankroll Wise's wardrobe.
Promotions such as these had Wise and her staff traveling 150,000 miles a year, and she quickly rose from general manager to company icon. When Earl Tupper met with representatives of a high-end Manhattan public relations firm, they informed Tupper the most unique and marketable thing about his young company was its charismatic female executive. By the mid-50s, Wise had made it onto the cover of Business Week, Women's Home Journal and Cosmopolitan.
With the company's growing success, Wise and her staff began planning annual Homecoming Jubilees, bigger and more extravagant versions of Stanley Home Products' annual Stanley Pilgrimage. Top salespeople from across the country met at T.H.P. headquarters in Florida for several days of classes, prizes and promotions.
Each Tupperware Jubilee had a theme; the first jubilee in 1954 was the Gold Rush. Six hundred of the company's best salespeople dug up prizes buried inside Tupperware containers next to the headquarters building, where the staff had placed them the night before. Unfortunately, the staff hadn't taken into account the swampy Florida soil. When the salespeople went to work digging up their prizes, many had to dig several feet into the ground. Some prizes took hours to recover. And some were only retrieved years later, when a new pond was being created.
Over the years, Jubilees became wilder and more outrageous. Because it needed so many prizes to give out, Tupperware became a bulk buyer of everything from double boilers to mink coats. Staff member Pat Tahaney recalled, "We would order sometimes as many as 100,000 blenders at one time." Don Fuhr, who was in charge of acquiring these items, visited factories around the world, cultivating relationships with the companies that manufactured what Tupperware needed. "At one point I was going to 11 countries in a month," he explained. "We could put our finger on anything in the way of consumer products. We could be on the phone in five minutes and set it up."
The company grew quickly under Wise's leadership, and by 1957, Earl Tupper was receiving lucrative offers from companies that wanted to buy Tupperware Home Parties. Meanwhile, his business relationship with Brownie Wise, once so collaborative and optimistic, had turned icy. In January 1958, Tupper fired Wise. Several months later, he sold Tupperware Home Parties to Justin Dart of Rexall Drug Company for $16 million.
Initially, Justin Dart wanted to discontinue Jubilee and other expensive company hoopla. He met with the staff -- one by one -- and they all attempted to convince him to keep the jubilees and other promotions in place, arguing they were effective tools to motivate the sales force, bring in new recruits and attract publicity. Justin Dart let the Tupperware Home Parties staff continue in their own way, and over the next two decades, Tupperware became one of Rexall Drug's most profitable holdings.
Jubilees continued to bring Tupperware salespeople to Kissimmee, Florida each year. Eventually, the Jubilees moved from outdoor tents to an air-conditioned indoor theater. Jubilees became less interactive and homespun, resembling Broadway spectacles instead. In the early 1960s, the company began selling Tupperware in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Worldwide sales of Tupperware expanded exponentially, as did the company's sales force. Today, Tupperware is sold in more than 100 countries. Tupperware Jubilees are held every year on six continents. Though most of Tupperware's staff and sales force know very little about Brownie Wise, they still participate in many of the traditions she put in place.
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?