Tupperware!, a new PBS documentary that aired on Feb. 9 (to be rebroadcast on WNET Sunday, Feb. 15 at 3 p.m.; check local listings) takes an approach to the past that is currently en vogue—it seeks to evoke the history of an era through the history of an object. As the show has it, to look closely at a Tupperware container is to examine suburban conformity, postwar consumerism, and the changing role of women in 1950s America. While this might seem like too much weight to pile on a piece of plastic, it's an approach that reflects the lofty ambitions of Tupperware's inventor, Earl Tupper, who believed that his "refrigerator dishes were … destined to change the lives of American citizens and dispel the discontentment of a wasteful consumer society," as Alison Clarke writes in Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America, an academic history on which the film is partly based.
Written and directed by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt (A Midwife's Tale) and narrated by actress Kathy Bates, Tupperware! tells the story of Earl Tupper's revolutionary invention in colorful, kinetic footage and folksy interviews. A tree surgeon and amateur inventor, Tupper began experimenting with polyethylene (a waste product of oil-refining) after working for DuPont during World War II, and eventually discovered a way to mold this substance into the feather-light, unbreakable plastic dishes he named "Wonderbowls." In 1949, he created and patented the "Tupper seal" lids that made his containers air- and watertight—and thus better at preserving food than anything available at the time. (The vacuum created by this seal is the reason that the bowls, as they are covered, make the famous "Tupperware Burp," since renamed the more elegant "Tupperware Whisper.") Though the press hailed the innovative designs—House Beautiful called Tupperware "Fine Art for 39 Cents"—sales were slow.
Then, in 1951, a Detroit divorcee named Brownie Wise caught Tupper's attention. To pay for her young son's medical costs, Wise sold consumer goods, including Tupperware, to women. Her high sales figures were striking. Tupper summoned her to his Massachusetts office, where she divulged her secret—what she called "the Tupperware Party"—and suggested Tupper withdraw his products from retail venues and sell them exclusively at gatherings for women. He followed her suggestion and made Wise, a single mother with no corporate experience, general sales manager of a newly formed subsidiary, Tupperware House Parties. In her new role, Wise trained middle- and lower-middle-class women, many of whom were not formally educated, to start their own home-based Tupperware businesses and to recruit others to do the same. The film liberally quotes from Wise's letters to her charges, which are as hortatory as any inspirational literature, and one realizes that her call to self-realization was likely as appealing to discontented housewives as the well-designed containers themselves. Within just a few years, for women of a certain social stratum, it was all the rage to be a "Tupperware Lady," and Tupperware became a multimillion dollar company.
The most memorable parts of Tupperware! are the archival film clips of the charismatic Wise. She gives speeches, leads retinues, and generally directs and presides—always fashionably attired in wasp-waisted, décolleté dresses. Her marketing acumen made her a minor celebrity: In 1954 she became the first woman to grace the cover of Business Week. Several interviewees in the film remember her as obsessively hands-on, requiring daily sales reports from her hundreds of distributors, keeping a typewriter on her bed in case the urge hit to write a midnight memo.
If the documentary suffers from one major flaw, it's that the narration is superficial and precious. ("Wise transformed the stereotype of the suede-shoed door-to-door salesman into a woman—in heels, no less.") It fails to explore the era's almost talismanic belief in the transformative power of material goods, say, or the psychic assurance provided by the presence of airtight receptacles in an age shadowed by nuclear conflict, or the Tupperware ladies' simultaneous celebration and rejection of domesticity. Fortunately, the interviews are evocative. One woman, whose husband forbade her to sell Tupperware, recounts furtively toting a collection of "two-inch [Tupperware] Minis" filled with colored water to a social function, and then "accidentally" overturning her purse so friends would ask about them.
Ironically, while Earl Tupper's company played a vital role in women's history, Tupper himself was no protofeminist. After seven years of productive collaboration with Wise, he grew fed up with her high visibility and extravagant spending. He wanted to sell his company and knew it would be difficult to do so with a powerful woman at the helm. So in 1958, Tupper fired Wise, giving her a mere $35,000 in severance. He also removed all traces of her image from the Tupperware headquarters. Later that year, Tupper sold his company to Rexall Drug and Chemical for $16 million, divorced his wife of many years, and purchased an island in Central America, where he went to live in reclusive solitude. Wise herself died in obscurity, the Rosalind Franklinof the business world, while the company she helped found continued to thrive.
What has happened to Tupperware in the years since? The film tells us vaguely that Tupperware became the "biggest and most successful international party planning business of its kind." This is true, sort of. In reality, domestic sales have been declining since the '80s, and 85 percent of Tupperware's yearly $1 billion in revenues come from overseas (Europe, Asia, Africa, India) where Tupperware is still relatively novel. But we are obviously living in world that's difficult to Tupperize: Many more women now work outside the home and no longer have hours to spend noodling around at a Tupperware demonstration. The company also faces competition from products made by Rubbermaid and Ziploc, which are cheaper and readily available in supermarkets and discount stores. (After a short-lived joint venture with Target, Tupperware can be bought only through its sales agents, its official Web site, or at the occasional "mall kiosk" set up by the company.) Still, we're not yet witnessing the demise of an American icon. In the early '90s, Tupperware hired the late, celebrated industrial designer Morison Cousins to revamp its image; several of his stylish creations have been displayed by museums (MOMA, the Victoria and Albert). The culture's fascination with all things retro has also raised the profile of Tupperware. Tupperware parties, with their kitschy appeal, are considered ironic-chic among young professionals. For the moment, it seems, plastic is here to stay, not with a burp but a whisper.