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Inside the Brown Bag

By Peg Brown

The Infamous “Burp”

Although you’re likely to hear many loud actual “burps” in appreciation of your holiday meals, the burp I am remembering was instrumental in helping to create what was the centerpiece of every 1970s bride’s Christmas and New Year’s celebrations—the lime green or strawberry Jell-O concoction complete with the obligatory pineapple and walnuts that graced all of our special occasions– made possible by the Tupperware Jell-O mold.

If you are of a “certain age” you will remember that Tupperware was the Cuisinart and Keurig of most household kitchens. Invented by Earl Tupper, a native of Berlin, NH, it quickly replaced those cute pastel plastic “hats” with white elastic bands that your grandmother used to keep leftovers fresh. The “burpable, bouncing, unbreakable containers” that we know as Tupperware dominated post-World War II domestic kitchen cabinets as refrigerators grew larger and market trips became less frequent. Everything from tumblers to containers for hams, cereal, half-gallons of ice cream (remember when they were really half-gallons?), juice servers and a tower of serving and storage bowls lurked behind those kitchen doors, ready to fall out and attack whenever you were searching for the matching lids.

As I was walking with a friend through a recent local Christmas bazaar, I passed a Tupperware vendor’s booth. I did a double-take and backtracked to confirm that the products I saw on display, complete with Disney characters for graphics, were “genuine” Tupperware. I was assured they were. Hence the dreaded Jell-O mold memory and, as my quirky brain wave responded, a topic that focuses on the holidays. (It’s a stretch, I know. Bear with me, it gets more interesting, and has a strong local connection.)

As a young bride, with Yankee in-laws and a mother-in-law who was a home economics teacher, the holiday meals that I was allowed to host were—–stressful. I had married into a family in which a wedding required registering at Tilden-Thurber for “good” china, crystal and sterling silver (remember those lime green boxes?)—NOT remotely related to my upbringing. Undoubtedly when presented my Jell-O salad complete on a silver tray, I am sure I missed seeing the “you must be kidding” eyerolls. I thought I was being very “modern.”

Back to the vendor. She mentioned that Tupperware headquarters is now located in Florida, but I had remembered that Tupperware had once had a factory in Rhode Island. I decided to do some research.

Earl Tupper attended Bryant College located in downtown Providence in the 1920s. He became a landscaper, lost that business during the depression and eventually ended up working as a chemist for DuPont. There are several stories about how he came to invent what has become an iconic example of creative engineering. Inspired by the lid of a paint can, he decided to invert the design, creating the waterproof seal that, with the burp, creates a vacuum. Earl himself added that he was also inspired by a story that a man had cut himself on a shattered water glass. He looked at a sheet of polyethylene given to a man that didn’t know what to do with it and created his first plastic product. “I knew I had something, a tumbler that wouldn’t break and wouldn’t cut anyone’s foot.”

I’d like to say that “the rest is history,” but the Tupperware story is not without its social controversies and a larger debate about women’s roles in the economy. Earl’s first factory was in Grafton (1938), and in his early years he marketed his products through retail outlets—not so successfully.

The Tupperware legacy really belongs to Michigan natives, Brownie Wise and her husband, who were having great success selling Tupperware through the home-sales method. In 1947, Earl reached out to Brownie, hired her to replicate her model of what became the Tupperware Party, and withdrew his products from retail stores.

In this post World War II environment, when women who had been working in various positions during the war effort resumed a more domestic role as thousands returning war veterans reentered the work force, the Tupperware Party offered job opportunities and extra income to women who were perhaps looking for an “outlet.” (See authors’ notes.)

In the 1960s, Tupperware hosts were subject to a strict dress code, with skirts and stockings to be worn at all times, and white gloves when making “carrot calls.” (Carrot calls were made door to door, asking residents to do an experiment by sealing carrots in Tupperware and, several days later, comparing them with carrots stored in any other container. It was a way to schedule more parties.)

Social change and the dawn of the feminist mystique often resulted in ridicule of the Tupperware party model as reinforcing the domestic role of women, with its focus on a coffee klatch stereotype. Other, more positive, feminist views felt that women who were pregnant or otherwise not working could develop income-producing career opportunities. Neither view negates that the Tupperware Party model was marketing genius.

Earl himself was not without his conflicting views on women’s roles. While his alliance with Brownie Wise earned him millions, he fired her in 1958 reportedly because he was looking to sell the company and thought having a woman as a key executive would limit his company’s appeal. He did sell the company to Rexall in 1958 for $16 million, divorced his wife, gave up US citizenship to avoid taxes, bought an island in Costa Rica, and reportedly slept with a pistol under his pillow, fearing robberies, until his death in 1983.

His connection to Rhode Island and especially to Smithfield is historic. The Tupperware company had a design center and mold facility in North Smithfield, which it closed in 1990, moving its consolidated operations to Orlando. They had employed over 130, many of whom were given the opportunity to transfer to Florida.

In 1967 Tupper donated 428 acres, then valued at $300,000, to Bryant College (Bryant’s website says 220 acres). Now home to Bryant University, the new campus was dedicated in April, 1972. A sign–“Tupper Campus” –once located at the entrance has been removed. Tupper’s gift is now recognized with a small commemorative plaque installed at the beginning of the main walkway when the campus was renovated in 2002. (hmmm!)

Earl Tupper was an eccentric, reclusive inventor who according to his closest friend, “never appeared anywhere socially. He never became a public person in any way. He would only speak to people one on one. That’s the way he was. He was a perfectionist, and he believed totally, 100 percent in an individual having the right to go to the top.” (J. Dempsey, Worcester Telegram and Gazette, March 4, 1992.) Ironic given that the party plan drove Tupperware’s success.

In 2007, Tupperware still had over 1.9 million direct sales persons. Tupperware items can be found on display in the Museum of Modern Art and the Natural Museum of Modern History.