Thursday, December 02, 1999

The liberating plastic world of Tupperware




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Maybe, I thought, I'll finally find out what all that burping was about. Perhaps some discussion of the Pie Taker vs. the Dip 'n Serve. Or at the very least, I was hoping to get party tips to use for the holidays.

        No such luck.

        The Tupperware Report, a handsome and voluminous tome, deals with none of these pressing issues. Instead, the company has researched “Women at the Millennium.” My images of Tupperware are more of “Women at Mid-Century.”

        For instance, the Tupperware Lady in our neighborhood was chatty and charming, but she cut to the sale like a buzz saw. Mona drove a big Oldsmobile and wore real pearls. Tupperware sent her three kids to college and gave her the power to tell her skirt-chasing husband to take a hike.

        The new Tupperware report found that three in four women consider themselves intelligent and 64 percent say they're “in control of my life.” I'll bet you couldn't find a study that even asked that question of women in Tupperware's early days.

Burping on cue
        My mom hosted a home party once, sharing in the proceeds of the sales. I was allowed to pass out the mixed nuts and pastel mints, and Mona also used me in a burping demonstration. For the uninitiated, it was the bowl that burped. Not I.

        Earl Silas Tupper introduced the “miracle” Wonderlier Bowl in 1946, claiming the “airtight seal,” patterned after the inverted rim of a paint can, would prevent foods from drying out or losing flavor — but only if the air was forced from the bowl before the final “Tupper seal.”

        By 1948, Mr. Tupper, a New Hampshire tree surgeon and chemist, had devised a way to shape polyethylene — a new material used primarily for insulation, radar and radio equipment — into a whole line of burpable containers.

        He just couldn't get anybody to buy them.

        Along came Brownie Wise, a divorced mother from Detroit. By 1954, she had made the Tupperware party a suburban ritual, and Brownie's troops numbered 20,000 — 95 percent of them women. Her favorite color was “Tupperware Rose.” She drove a pink convertible and dyed her canary the same color.

        Today, Tupperware Corp., based in Orlando, Fla., is a billion-dollar company. A Tupperware party breaks out somewhere in the world every 2.5 seconds, and about 80 percent of the company's sales are outside the United States. Maybe America has all the burping bowls it needs. Or maybe the Monas of the world have gone on to other things.

Rosie the Tupperware Lady
        A 1974 study by the Roper Organization reported that 60 percent of women polled said their No. 1 life choice was to be a full-time homemaker, compared with 17 percent in this year's Tupperware survey. And the lowly plastic bowl may be partly responsible.

        A book commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution suggests Tupperware was the postwar outlet for all the Rosie Riveters sent home after the men returned. Selling Tupperware TV Tumblers “enhanced their self-confidence and helped women win a measure of financial independence,” wrote author Alison Clark.

        The Guinness Book of World Records declared Tupperware — along with the bra, credit card, jumbo jet, Walkman, Rubik cube and mobile phone — as one of the enduring symbols of our era. But Tupperware's influence on women was more than symbolic.

        After half a century, the Tupperware party is moving out of the house and into the mall, the Internet and catalogs. And I'm guessing you can find a lot of the former Tupperware ladies at the office. Sometimes they are in the corner office.

        Maybe that sound we heard during the 1950s was not burping bowls at all. Maybe it was the sound of American women taking a deep breath just before they plunged into the workplace.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at laurapulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and Insight's Northern Kentucky Magazine.