Fine Art for 39 Cents

Marjorie Garber

  • Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America by Alison Clarke
    Smithsonian, 241 pp, £15.95, November 1999, ISBN 1 56098 827 4

‘Plastic! Plastic! The plastic – that frightful word gives me gooseflesh.’ This is Baudelaire, wickedly ventriloquising the neoclassical obsession with ‘the immoderate love of form’ in an essay called ‘The Pagan School’, published in 1852. ‘Plastic’ in this sense was a key criterion of formalist art: ‘plastic art’, ‘plastic merit’ and ‘plastic beauty’ were high compliments. Henry James, describing an aesthete, notes that ‘his appreciation ... was based partly on his fine sense of the plastic.’ Yet a hundred years after Baudelaire the figurative meaning of ‘plastic’ had fallen; it was now nearly synonymous with words like ‘artificial’, ‘superficial’ and ‘insincere’. ‘Now that so many of the young seem to wear their hearts on their sleeves,’ ran an article in Harper’s in 1967, ‘it is hard to tell which ones are real and which ones are plastic.’ Plastic, a chemically produced material based on polymers, had by this time become a lucrative business as well as a cultural sign.

The locus classicus for a certain mid-century generation was Mike Nichols’s film The Graduate of that same year, in which a bemused Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), newly home from college and unclear about his future, is given some advice by a family friend: ‘I just want to say one word to you, just one word.’ ‘Yes sir,’ says the well-brought-up Benjamin. ‘Are you listening?’ ‘Yes I am.’ ‘Plastics.’ A long pause during which Benjamin, and the audience, reflect on this gnomic pronouncement. ‘Exactly how do you mean?’ asks Benjamin. ‘There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?’ ‘Yes I will,’ says Benjamin, who has no intention of doing any such thing. Movie audiences roared with laughter. Plastic was the word for the artificial world of middle-class suburbia, everything against which Benjamin and his age-mates were about to be in revolt. But what goes around comes around, as the cliché insists. Today, ‘everybody in the world of polymers’ quotes this line from The Graduate, as cars, computers, clothing and just about everything else we use in daily life depend on ‘plastics’. The word has evolved from statuary and poetry to chemistry, physics, engineering (and credit cards).

Visiting a plastics exhibition in the 1950s, Roland Barthes had been struck by its double role: ‘the quick-change artistry of plastic is absolute: it can become buckets as well as jewels ... It is the first magical substance which consents to be prosaic.’ Although, ‘in the hierarchy of the major poetic substances, it figures as a disgraced material, lost between the effusiveness of rubber and the flat hardness of metal; it embodies none of the genuine produce of the mineral world,’ its very artificiality is its triumph: ‘for the first time, artifice aims at something common, not rare ... Plastic is wholly swallowed up in the fact of being used: ultimately, objects will be invented for the sole pleasure of using them. The hierarchy of substances is abolished; a single one replaces them all; the whole world can be plasticised, and even life itself.’

Like ‘artificial’, which used to mean ‘produced by art, skill and artifice’, and gradually acquired its modern meaning of ‘fake’ or ‘insincere’, ‘plastic’ has made a circuit. Though we may deplore artificial manners we invest in artificial intelligence. And now that the art of plastics resides in science and technology, we are curiously nostalgic and indulgent towards those mid-century years of plastic pocketbooks and Lucite belt buckles.

Characteristically, Barthes had zeroed in on the techno-language of chemistry and saw it as a return to art: ‘Despite having names of Greek shepherds (Polystyrene, Polyvinyl, Polyethylene), plastic,’ he noted drolly, ‘is in essence the stuff of alchemy.’ But it is not these graceful Theocritan or Spenserian creatures, the Poly-brothers, who epitomise the era of plastic in everyday life, plastic consenting to be prosaic, but rather another eponymous creation: the product line called, after its inventor, Tupperware.

‘One summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue,’ begins Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Mid-1960s readers knew instantly where they were; the telltale combination of Tupperware party and fondue said ‘suburbia’ as loudly as if the word itself had been printed as a date-line on the page.

As Alison Clarke explains in Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America, Tupperware was invented by Earl Silas Tupper, an amateur inventor who was an employee of a Massachusetts plastics firm before starting his own company in 1939. Around 1942, Tupper produced a flexible, injection-moulded, polyethylene bell-shaped container that became the first in his line of revolutionary kitchenware, and in 1949 he succeeded in obtaining a patent for the ‘Tupper seal’, an airtight lid. His goal, he said, was the ‘Tupperisation’ of American homes.

At first Tupper aimed his revolutionary product at a high-end market, renting a showroom on Fifth Avenue and sending a set of dinnerware as a prenuptial gift for Princess Elizabeth. Tupperware was presented to King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia and the Maharaja of Ender, and in 1948 the Tupper ‘Millionaire Line’ of houseware won a major award from the journal Plastics World. But the reputation of plastic was so mixed (some kinds disintegrated; others were malodorous or combustible) that Tupper avoided the term altogether, advertising his stylish Wonder Bowls and containers, made of ‘Poly-T’, as elegant and lovely to the touch, comparable to other fine table furnishings like silver, linen and china. House Beautiful praised Tupperware designs as ‘Fine Art for 39 Cents’, and by 1956 the curators at the Museum of Modern Art had selected some of Tupper’s kitchen containers and implements for an exhibition of outstanding 20th-century design. Their simplicity, classic shapes and functionality made them icons of Modernism. Never mind that the coffee cup’s stylish hollow handle leaked when tilted toward the mouth.

It was not, however, the Tupper product but rather the distinctive mode of merchandising Tupperware that would make its real mark on American – and later, world – culture. For Earl Tupper’s products, though widely admired by design professionals, did not sell particularly well. True, Time magazine reported that a Massachusetts mental hospital found the durable polyethylene dishes a pleasing substitute for noisy, easily battered aluminium cups and plates, but the Millionaire Line and other less ambitious items, featured in department stores like Gimbel’s, Bloomingdale’s and Jordan Marsh, failed to catch on. What turned things around for Tupperware, and made the word a catchphrase in American popular culture, was the home party sales system, now chiefly remembered (almost regardless of the actual products sold) as a ‘Tupperware party’.

Home parties or hostess parties, as they were called, evolved from door-to-door sales by familiar and trusted figures like the Fuller Brush man, who’d been travelling with a line of brushes and household products since 1913 but came into his own in the 1920s. In addition, there were direct sales concerns like the Realsilk Hosiery Company, Stanley Home Products and the ‘Avon Lady’. Avon, a cosmetics company, changed the gender dynamics by employing women to sell to women in the home. The ‘hostess party’ was the next step – a social gathering that was also an opportunity for selling. Here the pioneer was Wearever Aluminum, closely followed and imitated by Stanley Home Products. Madame C.J. Walker, the African-American business entrepreneur, sold hair and beauty products through clubs and door-to-door. But the quintessential hostess party, the one that became the archetypal and eponymous home party for a generation, was the Tupperware party.

In 1951, Earl Tupper appointed a ‘middle-aged, divorced mother from Detroit’ called Brownie Wise to lead the distribution network and sell all his products ‘on Hostess Plan’. Wise had sold Tupperware in ‘Poly-T Parties’ and ‘Patio Parties’. Now, as vice-president of Tupperware Home Parties Incorporated, she set about establishing the Tupperware party as a social and commercial event. In exchange for a ‘non-monetary gift’ a hostess lent her home and invited friends to join her to play games, consume refreshments and test and buy Tupperware products from Wonder Bowls to TV Tumblers and Ice-Tups. Those who attended were urged to become hostesses for parties of their own, with premium gifts as incentive.

In 1954, Brownie Wise, a natural-born entrepreneur, became the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week. In the same year she opened THP headquarters near Orlando, Florida: a white colonnaded building on a thousand acres, complete with a Tupperware Walk of Fame, a Loyalty Garden, a Poly Pond (where women could be baptised with ‘Tupper Magic’) and a 42-foot-long mural called Evolution of Dishes. Wise instigated the annual Tupperware Homecoming Jubilee; on one occasion a treasure trove of mink stoles, diamond rings, radios, gold watches, toasters and attaché cases were buried in the ground, and saleswomen were permitted to dig for them in what was called, variously, the ‘Gold Digger Drive’ and the ‘Big Dig’. The higher your sales figures, the richer the ground in which you dug. Wise was zealous to protect her product’s good name. THP declined to allow the popular television programme I Love Lucy to base a plot around a Tupperware party lest the treatment be less than reverent.

Wise herself undertook to ‘spread the Tupperware gospel’. The word is not accidentally chosen. Direct and home sales in this period employed the rhetoric of self-help, positive thinking and popular religion. (Dorothy L. Sayers’s fictional wine salesman Montague Egg, with his upbeat rhyming maxims out of the Salesman’s Handbook, is a good example of the tribe.) Thousands of dealers made the ‘Stanley Pilgrimage’ to Stanley Home Products headquarters, where they took part in pep talks, intoned the ‘Stanley Prayer’, and anointed themselves with blessed water from the Stanley Park Fountain. Positive-thinking preachers Norman Vincent Peale and Charles B. Roth spoke regularly at Tupperware Homecoming Jubilees.

It may be, as one sociological study speculates, that a general trend in the US towards evangelical religion subsequently moved Tupperware Home Parties further in that direction. Yet in comparison to modern sale-and-religious pitches, early Tupperware Home Parties seem to have been remarkably ecumenical and un-coercive. Later companies like Mary Kay Cosmetics (whose ‘pink Cadillac’ incentive schemes were a conscious imitation of Brownie Wise) and Mary C. Crowley’s Home Interiors and Gifts are much more explicitly conservative and Christian. Amway, the international marketing system that promises its participants wealth if they sell consumer products to their friends and neighbours and recruit new salespeople, donates large sums of money to conservative Christian causes. Salespersons are urged to recite verses of Scripture while gazing with concentration on pictures of cars, houses and yachts that they have pasted to their refrigerator doors and bathroom mirrors. (Several members of Congress are Amway distributors, and House majority Whip Tom DeLay is a former salesman for the company.)

In the course of the 1950s Tupper culture became a way of life for thousands of middle-class American women. A Vanguard Charter for ‘Brownie’s exclusive honour guard of managers’ was emblazoned with a coat of arms that reads like a camp classic: ‘Stars (symbolising aspiration), an acorn (symbolising growth), a lamp (symbolising knowledge), a bee (denoting industry) and a rose and Wonder Bowl (suggesting beauty and the enduring qualities of the product and party plan)’. At the Tupperware College of Knowledge, graduates of a course in sales promotion received copies of Wise’s autobiography, an exercise in positive thinking called Best Wishes, Brownie Wise. Wise herself became something of a cult figure. She built her own Florida lakeside estate, ‘Water’s Edge’, she drove a pink convertible and kept a pink canary. Her own cast-off clothes were eagerly snapped up as prizes and premiums by the women in her sales force, and she ultimately ran foul of the more idealistic, less flamboyant New Englander, Earl Tupper, still intent on the Tupperisation of America. In 1958 he fired her (or, according to Wise, she ‘resigned’). Later that year he sold the Tupper Corporation and Tupperware Home Parties for $16 million. In 1976 he was inducted into the Plastic Hall of Fame.

Today, according to Clarke, ‘a Tupperware party takes place somewhere in the world every 2.5 seconds, and an estimated 90 per cent of American homes own at least one piece of Tupperware.’

As can be readily glimpsed from this thumbnail account, the story of Tupperware is a good story. Clarke, a tutor in design history and material culture at the Royal College of Art, has found fascinating material through oral histories and other research, and her narrative is both sophisticated and thoughtful. The Tupperisation of American women in the 1950s is a striking symptom of culture, here, in the main, very well interpreted and observed. Clarke proceeds in the expansive, associative way that has become familiar in such case studies of consumerism and gender politics, with sidebar accounts from social history, popular and mass culture, advertising, urban anthropology, gift exchange rituals, women’s and domestic history and the history of technology. It is arguable, though, that this approach, made familiar under the rubric of ‘American cultural studies’, occasionally weighs down a sprightly tale.

There are many pleasures here, including a hilarious account of a pseudo-anthropological gift-giving extravaganza (dealers dressed as ‘snake charmers’ and ‘cannibals’, attempting to barter their goods to passing Tupperware people against a backdrop of Polystyrene igloos and authentic Native American teepees). But it sometimes seems as if a long essay could make the salient points more effectively than a 200-page monograph, however stylishly done. Clarke seems periodically aware of this: her book is full of summations and previews, with an introduction and conclusion that anticipate and recapitulate all the more extensive and digressive analyses in between. The ‘party plan’ system is explained several times. The Museum of Modern Art’s choice of Tupperware as a Modernist icon is cited, then discussed, then cited again. The famous Tupperware ‘burp’ (‘the technique of pushing the centre of the seal to fully engage the lip with the edge of the bowl, creating an airtight seal’) is mentioned four times, and well analysed the first time, in the introduction (it ‘seems to extend a metaphor equating women’s faculties solely with a predisposition for nurturing and domesticity’). These details risk losing their piquancy when they are too often reencountered. Summarising and then refuting contrary critical views (on the self-help movement; on the social and gender politics of hostess parties etc) bulks up the book with ‘you have heard it said ... but I say unto you’ arguments that would be better remanded to the footnotes, interjecting a periodic note of shrillness (against ‘academically vilified constructs’; against ‘patronising critiques’) that does not itself entirely escape being patronising.

Yet it is a good story. Clarke sets out to discover how the account of a design singled out by MoMA for its classic simplicity can also be the account of female economic empowerment and endearing mid-century kitsch. She doesn’t quite resolve this high-low conundrum (if it is a conundrum), but her cultural history of Tupperware is, as she clearly discovered in the course of her research, a snapshot of 20th-century American culture.

And not only in the United States. The Tupperisation envisaged by the founder has extended to Japan, where in the 1960s Japanese women purchased twice as much Tupperware as their American counterparts. In the 1970s the Tupperware party became the model for home group sales of sex toys and erotic lingerie in Britain, and Clarke reports on gay Tupperware parties in Los Angeles in the 1990s. In November 1999, Tupperware unveiled a 105-foot Millennium Sculpture ‘covered with Tupperware products’ at its world headquarters in Orlando, to symbolise its global recruiting programme. A public opinion poll carried out by the company in December found, reassuringly, that 88 per cent of American families eat dinner together at least once a week, and nearly half do so every night – and most eat home-cooked meals (with Tupper-able leftovers, we can assume). And another opinion poll, the Tupperware Report on Women at the Millennium, charted women’s preferences about work, home, health and ‘material possessions’, articulating four ‘archetypes’ of American women: ‘Sole Survivors’, ‘Gate Keepers’, ‘Hearth Keepers’ and ‘New Pioneers’.

The real triumph of Tupperware, however, is its entry into the annals and cultural practices of modern society, and into its language – even when the product on offer is no longer a descendant of Earl Tupper’s Millionaire Line. The home party system itself, predictably enough, has become both ‘high’ and ‘low’. The New York Times recently reported on a Park Avenue ‘linen party’, an event said to be ‘spreading like kudzu’ among the ‘status-conscious châtelaines’ of Manhattan and its fancier suburbs. ‘Think of it as a high-toned version of a suburban Tupperware party,’ suggested the article, with conscious irony. ‘For the burping pastel plastic, substitute expensive (but discounted) sheets and towels.’ Yet even Tupperware doesn’t ‘burp’, anymore, apparently – since the 1970s it ‘whispers’.