The 1950s promised an easier existence for Americans who had endured the Depression and World War II.
People began thinking about achieving more than just "getting by." Owning a home and car became standard aspirations. Advertisements and TV programs showcased a lifestyle filled with new appliances, fueled by increased mobility and a better quality of life.
That promise was out of reach for most working-class families. Some solved the problem by embarking on a new kind of entrepreneurial venture: home party selling.
Visit the 1950s and meet some members of "Generation T."
Women and Work
Page after page of 1950s advertisements portrayed American women as homemakers, equipped with the latest domestic gadgets, freed from the drudgery of past generations. In reality, many women needed to earn money to support themselves and their families, yet they had limited work options.
The jobs they could get in factories, on farms, behind store counters, or as secretaries offered little flexibility for scheduling family duties, and not much hope for advancement. Many husbands identified themselves as the breadwinners and expected their wives to stay home. Home party selling gave women the opportunity to earn money while working from their homes, serving both the prevailing social code and a practical need.
"Women do not get very much recognition for being a good mother, a good housekeeper, a good wife, cooking a good meal." — Lavon Weber
Lavon Weber: We were farmers. My folks both had a good work ethic, so we all knew how to work. We had cows to milk and chickens and hogs and herded cattle, and worked in the field, and I started very young working in the field. We all learned how to work...
There [were] three girls and four boys, and there was only eleven years difference in the oldest and the youngest. And my mother, I marvel at the work she did, because not only did she have those seven children crowded up in a little tiny house, but she raised a garden, she canned, she did chores, she milked cows, she raised turkeys, chickens, everything...
I grew up on the farm, and went to country school, and a very small high school. And we were pretty down-home folks. First [Tupperware] Jubilee I went to, I was just blown away. They even served caviar. Of course I didn't want to eat any of it when I saw it, but I was impressed. The fact that we had orchids just hanging around on the wall for decoration, and these banquet meals, even though it was in a circus tent to start with, all this was really uptown for us.
I'll say, 'Now, practice what you're going to say, and one of the best places to do it is in front of the mirror, because then you see: Are you smiling? How are you coming across? Are you frowning?' And it's funny how you'll get right in front of the mirror, and just seeing yourself, you almost forget... You need to practice before you go to give that demonstration.
I've been in it so long that it's just a way of life with me. And I've tried to make quilts, and I've tried to do ... a little bit of painting. I can get lost in doing flower arrangements. But you know, how many flower arrangements can you make? My kids' houses all look like a mortuary, I got so many flower arrangements in it. So they don't need me. They've proved they don't need me. I need them. I need to be there.
Weber eventually gave her Tupperware distributorship to her son and daughter-in-law, but she found it difficult to retire from the business.
Postwar real estate developers built massive suburban communities from the ground up, touting a vision of a convenient, efficient, carefree life made possible by modern technology. Miles of new highways and government programs for homebuyers placed this dream life within reach.
Social critic Lewis Mumford disparaged the new settlements, calling them "too spread out for social relationships." But Americans voted with their feet. During the Fifties, 20 million Americans left the nation's aging cities and relocated to new houses in the suburbs, fulfilling their dreams of home ownership and establishing social connections with new neighbors.
Home party selling like Tupperware relied on strong social networks for its success. It thrived in cities, suburbs, and rural areas, especially in ethnic communities where social links through churches, ethnic organizations, and community groups were strong.
Frank Siriani: You just don't keep hounding the people in your immediate circle. You, you...
Mary Siriani: You spread out.
Frank Siriani: You expand.
Frank and Mary Siriani
Frank Siriani: When I was raised, my mom was always at home. My dad worked long, long, long hours driving a taxicab in New York... it's during the 20s into the early 30s, during the Depression years. We were not desperately poor, but just about one step ahead of welfare.
Frank Siriani: Everybody was wanting to buy something. Things were starting to get a little bit more prosperous and we needed a product to buy.
Mary Siriani: .. Brownie again was on stage and the tops in sales, they had to get gifts according to their sales. And they were being rewarded. And then someone made a remark, 'How do you like Brownie's bracelet?'
Frank Siriani: 'Wouldn't you like to have something? How about Brownie's dress, or hat, or whatever?'
Mary Siriani: And I remember saying, 'Her shoes' -- she has big feet -- 'her shoes are too big for me. So I'll take her hat.' That's what I said.
Mary Siriani: I wore that hat. I was so proud of that hat... Brownie's hat. It was a little white hat with a —
Frank Siriani: It was a nice hat.
Mary Siriani: — rhinestone bead on it.
Mary Siriani: Well, being that the Tupperware, it was a prestige product... It was a —
Frank Siriani: Had prestige.
Mary Siriani: It has prestige. And this is the way we felt about it that you're a special person and you had something special to tell everyone and you had to look special, feel special, act special, and it'll be contagious, and that's the way we felt about it.
Innovation and the Cold War
The 1950s was filled with technological innovations
The Fifties heralded afuture populated with technological wonders that had previously been the domain of science fiction. The nation that had built the first nuclear bomb and led its allies in defeating fascism was now headed for the Moon.
Vice president Richard Nixon even boasted to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev about the sophistication of American domestic appliances during their 1959 "Kitchen Debate."
It was the era of modernity, wipe-clean plastics, fear of Communism, and pride in the superiority of the American way of life.
It was an era where we were all kind of naive... Everybody just believed and cared. And there wasn't a huge amount of questioning... — Sylvia Boyd
Jon and Sylvia Boyd
Sylvia Boyd: I don't think we ever thought that we would have an opportunity to own a business together, because we really had no skills.
In 1960, the Boyds moved from southern California to Fort Wayne, Indiana to become Tupperware distributors.
Sylvia Boyd: We were so excited, we didn't ask, "What's it going to cost us? What's waiting for us when we get there? What can we expect to make?" We asked nothing. We sold what little we had, we packed up and we left, and our parents are crying and saying, "What are these kids doing?" No, we didn't have any second thoughts. We had complete faith that the company was giving us the opportunity of a lifetime.
Lorna Boyd (Jon and Sylvia's daughter): At our rallies, my father would always dress up as the Tupperware lady. And it was this kind of yellow gingham dress with a pinafore and a wig with pigtails. And he'd come in with this high pitched voice and a feather duster. Oh my gosh, the hilarity. Just everybody laughing.
The young Boyd family
Sylvia Boyd: We opened India, which was our greatest challenge and our greatest enjoyment. We were there for 15 months. Started with like zero and built to a really wonderful sales force, and they're doing great.
Lorna Boyd (Jon and Sylvia's daughter): I grew up with Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best, just like everyone else... Tupperware flew in the face of that, because it took those moms out of the kitchen, where they were "supposed to be" and let them enter the work force, and let them have something outside the home.
Seeking the American Dream
Fifties society did not offer the American Dream -- a secure job, a car, a home of one's own and a lifestyle with room for leisure -- equally to all.
Segregation, lack of education, a working-class background, and prejudices against specific ethnicities and races were common barriers to advancement. Yet they were not barriers to entry into direct selling. Dependent on social networks, the Tupperware business offered determined individuals a way up the ladder.
General Motors sales consultant Kenneth McFarland promised Tupperware dealers success if they would "sell Tupperware with your left hand and sell America with your right hand.
I never met with any prejudice... my accent had become my calling card." — Li Walker
Li Walker: I was brought up in a society in the Philippines where women were supposed to not talk and just be quiet, be in the background... not even supposed to eat together with your husband. You know, you feed them first... but I didn't believe in those ideas. I feel like we are equals. You just, you have to get out there and you can do what a man can do most of the time, or sometimes we do it better.
We got married in '46 and stayed in the Philippines about eight years. I really didn't want to come because I was scared, but his parents wanted us to come... we had the three children in the Philippines, two boys and a girl.
When we arrived [in Florida] we lived with his mother and father... at the time, the place was not built up, just orange groves. But then in the daytime I met people through the church, and the neighbors came to meet John's bride and the kids in the neighborhood came to see if my children can speak English.
The rallies at the time [were] in Sarasota. And I took the bus. And at the time all the black people sit in the back. And I guess they considered me black, so I was told to sit in the back. And I always get car sick, so that was horrible for me to go to the rally to sit in the back of the bus.
I think it was the right opportunity at the time because I didn't have any other prospects, you might say. I didn't have any other.
Most Americans got by with very little during the Depression, and endured strict rationing of items like gasoline, tires, butter and meat during World War II.
After the war, consumer culture took off, fueled by years of pent-up demand and a manufacturing sector looking for postwar business. Higher paychecks and "modern" goods — like Tupperware containers, made from a recently invented wartime plastic — translated into ringing cash registers.
The message from advertisers was that every aspect of life could be improved with a purchase -- the drive to work, chores around the house, even a weekend barbeque.
I always wanted a car... I didn't care what it was. — Tom Damigella
Tom and Ann Damigella
Tommy Damigella (Tom and Ann's son): Well, the definition of being a feminist today probably would fit my mother to a certain extent... But you know, that never was an issue with my mother. She didn't see that she was like leading a cause or that she was breaking ground, even though she was. But she was doing it because her first priority was to nurture and protect and create a future for her family.
We got a telephone call. "Person to person, long distance call." Long distance? I didn't even know there was short distance and long distance. Very few people had a phone. Then I got on the phone, and [he] said, 'This is Mr. Earl Tupper... We found out that whatever you're doing, you're selling more than my entire region put together in all of New England... I would like to meet you, like to see you.'
Earl Tupper called Tom Damigella about his selling techniques before he established Tupperware exclusively as a home selling business.
... I said, 'Mr. Tupper, do you know that your Tupperware is dying on the shelves?' That got him. I could tell, because I could see the reaction in his mind. His Tupperware, his wonderful, beautiful Tupperware, was dying on the shelves. The word 'dying.'
I had to fight the husbands, because the husbands always have a mentality about their women -- she belongs in the home with the kids in the kitchen -- because when he comes home, he was the boss.
Six distributors in the United States were going to receive a Cadillac for the top sales... It was my amazement at the very end -- you can't fight with figures -- that Ann and I became one of the six.