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The Business of Direct Selling

A Tupperware home part, Tupperware, Inc.

The business of sales has been a vital part of America's economy since the country's earliest years. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, salesmen accounted for a large part of commerce in both the countryside and in growing American cities. Many spent their lives on the road selling goods -- encyclopedias, sewing machines, pots and pans and more. Even self-made billionaire John D. Rockefeller's father was a "pitch man," selling medical cures from town to town.

Slick... and Ubiquitous
By the early 20th century, the traveling salesman had become a familiar -- and sometimes comical -- image in America. Salesmen were considered slick and untrustworthy, peddling cure-all elixirs and overpriced Bibles. Yet at the turn of the century, the direct selling business expanded and became more organized. Small outfits like the Fuller Brush Company, which sold cleaners, brushes and mops, went national. Men in every region of the country set out to sell Fuller Brush products to every American household.

Knocking on Doors
While door-to-door salespeople were almost all men who went from town to town, knocking on doors carrying cases filled with products, those buying the brushes and cleaners were often women. In fact, Fuller's product line of home cleaning supplies catered particularly to women as homemakers.

Efficient Sales Parties
Frank Stanley Beveridge, a successful Fuller Brush salesman, saw the potential in door-to-door selling. In 1931 he opened his own cleaning supplies company, called Stanley Home Products. Based in western Massachusetts, the company followed in its predecessors' footsteps, sending men out knocking on doors and selling to housewives. Beveridge learned that one of his salesmen was making record-breaking sales by demonstrating his products in the living rooms of women "hostesses" who volunteered their homes and invited their friends to attend "a Stanley party." At these gatherings, the salesman could demonstrate his products to a roomful of invited "guests" and then take orders from many women at once -- a far more efficient method than knocking cold on doors, selling to one person at a time. In exchange for her efforts, the hostess of the Stanley party was given a complimentary hostess prize, such as a toaster, a coffee pot, or free Stanley products.

A Good Job for a Busy Mother
Beveridge saw the potential in this new idea, and by 1940 Stanley Home Products had moved away from door-to-door cold calling, and become strictly a home party sales company. This radical change brought women into the business. In fact, home party sales became a convenient and lucrative business for women. Throughout the 1940s women discovered that they could make some extra "pin" money -- or even support their families -- through a job with Stanley. The work offered them flexibility and autonomy they couldn't find in other jobs. They could choose how many hours they wanted to work, and control their own schedules. And Beveridge wasn't complaining, either -- by 1950, his company's sales had hit a record $70 million.

From Stanley to Tupperware
In the late 1940s, a woman named Brownie Wise discovered that she too could make a good living from selling Stanley Home Products. A single mom who desperately needed to make money, she became one of the most successful unit managers in the Detroit area within one year. Wise took the skills that she learned as a Stanley dealer and manager and capitalized on them when she was hired as the vice president and general manager of Tupperware Home Parties.

A Business for Women
By the 1960s, most of the people in home party selling were women. Tupperware was the leader in its field, and as the company went international, more and more direct selling companies were formed, basing their corporate structure on the Tupperware model.

Businesses Beget Businesses
Alan Luce, Tupperware's longtime in-house legal counsel, likened the history of the business to the "begats" of the Bible's Old Testament. One can trace the lineage of any of today's home party selling companies back to the original home party businesses. Stanley Home Parties, the most influential party plan company of the first half of the 20th century, trained Brownie Wise, Mary Kay Ash of Mary Kay Cosmetics, and Mary Crowley, the founder of Home Interiors, among others. And Tupperware, in turn, launched a number of people who went on to build companies like Longaberger Party Baskets and Partylite. "Each company," Luce said, "has spawned sales leaders who then in turn go out and start new direct selling companies using the party plan method of selling."

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