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Plastics and American Culture After World War II

Women working in a plastics factory, National plastics Center and Museum

A few days before the nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, J. W. McCoy, a DuPont vice president, addressed a manufacturers' workshop on converting factories from military to consumer production after the war. Business would be good, he predicted, due to "a great backlog of unfulfilled wants." Satisfying American consumers' desires for cars, washing machines, radios, and other products would create "an upward spiral of productivity, raising the standard of living, increasing the national income, and making more jobs." But, McCoy warned, "a satisfied people is a stagnant people" -- and suggested manufacturers would have to ensure that Americans were never satisfied.

Drive for Novelty
In his book American Plastic: A Cultural History, historian Jeffrey Meikle writes that the ever-expanding proliferation of consumer goods created an inflationary culture, and that plastic became the material of choice for this never-ending expansion. "It was inexpensive because it was derived from petroleum... It was less solid or intractable than wood or steel. It was free of traditional preconceptions regarding its use and could be molded into any shape a restless drive for novelty might conceive... Plastic not only offered a perfect medium for this material proliferation. It conceptually embodied and stimulated it."

A New Use
DuPont's slogan was "Better Things for Better Living... through Chemistry." In 1948, DuPont sponsored full-color ads for Earl Tupper's tumblers made from polyethylene, a plastic developed for insulating electrical wiring in wartime devices. In 1949, Earl Tupper wrote, "With the end of the war [polyethylene] was another young veteran that had accelerated from childhood to a fighting job... It had done its job well but like all young vets returning from the wars it had never had civilian adult experience."

Easy Cleaning
After the war, all types of products were made from polyethylene -- garbage pails, squeeze bottles, hula-hoops, and thousands more. These were lighter, more flexible and less permanent than objects made from thermoset plastics. A special 1947 issue of House Beautiful included a 50-page insert devoted to "Plastics... A Way to a Better More Carefree Life." The big draw was damp cloth cleaning: plasticized rooms, furniture and objects could endure spills and easily be wiped clean.

Creating Demand For Tupperware
Tupperware had an important place in the domestication of plastic. After the war, many people didn't trust plastic products, convinced from their experiences with cheap wartimes materials that they'd break, chip, melt or smell. But Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise zealously promoted the Tupperware as a product discriminating buyers would desire -- and be proud to display in their houses. "Tupperware's popularity signaled an overall acceptance of plastic," according to Meikle. "Its domestic convenience reflected aspirations for a casual life of leisure identical to those in the promotions of the damp-cloth utopians. At the same time, however, Tupperware's acknowledgement of plastic as plastic, as a material with its own unique appearance and texture, indicated the beginning of a trend that continued through the 1950s and into the 1960s and beyond."

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