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Tupper, Earl Silas - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Earl Silas Tupper, Social and Economic Impact

tupperware plastic home products

(1907-1983)
Tupperware

Overview

The story of Earl Tupper is an American ingenuity story, in which a young man with a basic high school education, an inventive genius, and a commercial eye was able to transform an ugly hunk of oil refinery waste known as “slag” into a form of plastic that could be made cheaply into many useful things. Tupper’s new plastic and his methods of forming the plastic changed the shape and design of household objects, as well as commercial objects in the last half of the twentieth century. His marketing technique of hosting product demonstration parties in the home became extremely successful and has been imitated by other companies selling such items as underwear, home decorations, gardening supplies, and cooking utensils. Earl Tupper’s Tupperware is one of the most recognized names in home furnishings in the world.

Personal Life

Earl Tupper was born on July 28, 1907, in Berlin, New Hampshire, and was the only child of Ernest and Lulu Tupper. His father, Ernest Leslie Tupper, ran a family farm and greenhouses. His mother, Lulu Clark Tupper, took in laundry to wash for neighbors and ran a boarding home. Earl’s father was a person who loved to build and tinker, and created several labor-saving gadgets. He was granted a patent for a device to facilitate the cleaning of chickens. Perhaps Earl Tupper developed his talent for inventing things by watching his father.

Earl was energetic as a youngster, interested in business, and in making money. He discovered he could sell a lot of the family’s farm produce if he went door-to-door rather than selling it at the farmer’s market. By age 10, Earl learned that bringing the product to the customer was lucrative as well as enjoyable. He would use this method years later in the form of the Tupperware party.

Earl graduated from high school in New Hampshire in 1925, when he was 17 years old. After graduation he continued to work in the family businesses until he was 19. By then, he had determined that somehow, as a businessman, he would make a million dollars by age 30. Earl’s early employment also included working as a mail clerk, and as part of a railroad labor crew. In his spare time he took a course to learn tree surgery, so he could start his own business tending trees and landscaping. In 1931, at age 24, Earl married. He and his wife had five children, one daughter and four sons.

Though he started his landscaping business during the Great Depression, it was a modestly successful venture. His Tupper Tree-Doctors Company stayed open for six years. During this time, Earl also kept himself busy conducting various experiments and wrote a series of scientific papers which described his vast interests and many ideas for inventions. But, at age 30, Tupper, instead of having made his first million, was forced into bankruptcy.

In 1936, after his bankruptcy, Earl met Bernard Doyle, an inventor working at the plastics manufacturing division of the Du Pont Corporation, in Leominster, Massachusetts. Earl became intrigued with the possibilities of plastic, and went to work at the plastics plant where he later said, according to records of the National Museum of American History, “It was at Du Pont that my education really began.” It was also where Tupper conducted his earliest experiments with plastics prior to World War II.

In 1973, Tupper retired and moved to Costa Rica where he eventually became a citizen. Tupper lived to age 76. He died of a heart attack in his adopted homeland on 3 October 1983 and was survived by a sister, 5 children, and 14 grandchildren. Although Tupper built an enormous company making all kinds of things out of plastics, he never liked the term “plastic.” He used to insist on calling what he made “Poly-T,” because “a lot of plastic that is made is junk.”

Career Details

Earl Tupper worked for Du Pont for only one year. In 1938, he left Du Pont and started the Earl S. Tupper Company which advertised the design and engineering of industrial plastics. He wanted to experiment with plastic and asked Du Pont for some polyethylene slag, a waste product of the oil refining process. It was black, hard, putrid, and unworkable in that form. Tupper refined and cleaned the slag, and produced a plastic that was translucent, white, flexible, lightweight, odorless, non-toxic, and not greasy to the touch. This improved plastic, called Poly-T, became a revolutionary substance in the modern world. Tupper’s modern plastic was made to withstand almost anything except sharp knife-cuts, and near-boiling water. Tupper also designed injectionmolding machines to make shaped objects out of his new plastic, and subsequently developed his famous, patented, air-tight lid.

Chronology: Earl Silas Tupper

1907: Born.

1928: Established Tupper Tree Doctors landscapers.

1936: Tupper Tree Doctors went bankrupt.

1937: Secured employment with Du Pont.

1938: Developed Poly-T plastic.

1938: Established the Earl S. Tupper Company.

1945: Invented air-tight plastic containers—Tupperware.

1946: Introduced Tupperware into department and hardware stores.

1951: Began selling Tupperware through home parties.

1958: Sold Tupperware business to Rexall.

Most of the work during his company’s first few years was performing subcontract work for Du Pont. The company made much of its money producing molded parts for gas masks and signal lamps for the U.S. Navy during World War II. After the war, Tupper, along with hundreds of other manufacturers, turned his attention to the postwar consumer market. He made items such as plastic sandwich picks, unbreakable drinking tumblers, and plastic cigarette cases. These consumer products were often given away with other well-known products. The tumbler was offered with Tek toothbrushes and the cigarette cases were offered along with brand-name cigarettes with the cigarette company’s logo imprinted on the case. Tupper also focused on creating a line of plastic food storage containers that would hold foods “air tight” in the refrigerator, sealing them against other odors, and keeping foods fresh longer. These containers were known as “Tupperware,” and were first distributed in department and hardware stores. Unfortunately, because of the bad reputation of other plastics, sales were dismal in stores. Consumers knew little of Tupper’s new type of plastic. Also, the ingeniousness of Tupper’s air-tight seal needed to be demonstrated to customers.

Tupperware was also distributed through private household product companies, such as Stanley Home Products. Some home product salespeople were selling fairly large quantities of Tupperware products to the point where Tupper took notice, contacted them, and met with them to discuss possible new ways to market and distribute Tupperware. A Stanley Home Products saleswoman, Brownie Wise, who was a single mother with a chronically ill son, and who was working three jobs, suggested that Tupper develop a marketing strategy modeled after the Stanley Home Product Company’s in-home selling parties. Thomas Damigella and several other Tupperware distributors also strongly urged Earl Tupper to pull his products out of department stores, and to pursue direct-marketing to the buyer using the “home party.” The idea, was to demonstrate the products in the home of a person who sponsored a “Tupperware party,” where all questions could be answered, where there was fun and laughter, with a party-like or social gathering type of atmosphere. At one point, small Tupperware products were given away to those who attended the parties. Brownie Wise was a very innovative, ambitious, and smart saleswoman and became vice president of the company Tupperware Home Parties in 1951, and she remained in that position until 1958. Home demonstration parties have remained the primary outlet for Tupperware and have become an institution. Anyone with any sales skills could sell the products and sales skyrocketed using this idea. By 1951, Tupper set up world headquarters in Orlando, Florida, on an 1,100-acre site chosen by Brownie Wise.

By the time he decided to retire, at age 51, Earl Tupper had created an enormously successful worldwide organization involved in the manufacture and direct sales of plastic containers—containers that were beautiful enough to be collected regularly by the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, and displayed there, as early as 1947. Tupperware has also earned a place in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Montreal, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The beauty and functionality of these products, and the direct face-to-face sales, became an unbeatable combination. In 1958, Tupper sold Tupperware to Rexall Corporation for $16 million.

Social and Economic Impact

By the late 1940s, Earl Tupper had brought a clean, durable, attractive kind of plastic into the world of commerce. Developing a high-quality plastic along with an ingenious method of production served as a catalyst for numerous plastic products that have since flooded the marketplace. Molded plastic products are everywhere. The direct face-to-face selling technique of the company became extremely popular and the home party idea has continually evolved. Tupperware created literally millions of jobs and its sales force has been mostly women. When Tupperware started to become popular household items, the work force in the United States was going through major changes. During World War II, while so many of the country’s men were in the armed forces, many women had entered the male-dominated job market, for example, in factories. Women also worked at jobs created for the war effort and when the war ended, so did the jobs. Upon the servicemen’s return, women were squeezed out of the job market. Also, after World War II, many children were born—the baby boom—and at that time, many women who had children did not work outside the home. Selling Tupperware provided convenient part-time or full-time employment for many of these women who sought a career outside the home.

The Tupperware party has flourished for a half-century, and it is estimated by market analysts that in the 1990s, there was, somewhere in the world, a Tupperware sales event going on every few seconds, about 75,000 parties a day with an estimated 118 million attendees yearly, and that one half of all American women over the age of 18 had attended a Tupperware party. In addition, by the mid-1990s, it was estimated that 90 percent of U.S. homes owned at least one piece of Tupperware. Tupperware products are also sold in approximately 85 foreign markets. In 1960, Tupperware was being distributed in Canada and western Europe, and in 1961, Tupperware expanded into Pacific rim countries. Since 1990, Tupperware has been distributed in several Eastern European countries, and Turkey, Russia, India, Indonesia, and China. As the number of different countries where Tupperware was sold increased, Tupperware diversified its products. For example, in Japan, Tupper-ware kimono keepers can be purchased. Tortilla keepers can be found in Central and South American countries, and in South Korea Tupperware sells Kimchee keepers. Always expanding and attempting to meet the needs of many people, Tupperware has recently started to imprint Braille designations on some of its products in the U.S. market. In 1996, Tupperware became an independent company. Its Tupperware International unit is the world’s third-largest direct selling company, behind Avon and Amway.

Aside from quality children’s toys, lettuce corers, orange peelers, tea strainers, gardening tools, and cake keepers, Earl S. Tupper is remembered for other reasons as well; the Earl S. Tupper Research and Conference Center is located at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The facility includes the Earl S. Tupper Tropical Sciences Library, laboratories for chemistry, plant physiology, histology, acoustic communication, entomology and a scanning electron microscope.

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