Tupperware & Brownie Wise: Amazing documentary about women and plastics and reinvention in Post World-War II America

tupperware history image

In the 1950s, Tupperware ladies fanned out across the nation’s living rooms, selling efficiency and convenience to their friends and neighbors. Here, marketing genius Brownie Wise (right) tosses a bowl filled with water at a Tupperware party. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE charts the origins of the small plastics company that became a cultural phenomenon in “Tupperware!” premiering on PBS Tuesday, February 14, 2012 (check local listings). Credit: Smithsonian Archives Center, National Museum of American History This image may be used only in the direct promotion of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: “Tupperware!”. No other rights are granted. All rights are reserved. Editorial use only.

Thanks to Mod Betty’s recent story about visiting the Tupperware Museum in Orlando, I learned that what looks to be a fabulous video about Tupperware’s origins is playing again on PBS tomorrow night, Feb. 14, looks like 8 p.m. Eastern, check listings. Increasingly, I am just fascinated with the role that women played in creating the look and feel of America after World War II. The “status quo” wanted them to go back to the home and free up “real” jobs for the men. Even so, many women just wouldn’t have it so. Brownie Wise — a single mom-working woman from Detroit who was in fact a marketing genius — was one such woman. It sounds like she alone is the catalyst that turned Tupperware into an iconic international brand. I reached out to PBS and they sent me a complete write up about the show, along with these great images. The website also is Terrific with a capital T.

For example, here is Chapter 1 of the documentary:

And 2014 update:

You can watch the complete video on PBS’ website now- click here to get to the player.

Read on for more info on the documentary — by Laurie Kahn Levitt, a woman of course! — and be sure to tune in Tuesday night. A snippet of the description:

In Tupperware!, rare archival footage of Tupperware parties, annual Tupperware Jubilees, and home movies are interwoven with the thoughtful, often humorous recollections of Tupperware salespeople and executives who experienced firsthand the company’s meteoric rise.

Tupperware seemed to be custom-made for a post-war America in love with modern conveniences. But it wasn’t an instant success. Its creator, Earl Tupper, spent years doggedly tinkering with his machines in the heart of Massachusetts plastics industry. Eventually, he figured out how to mold raw polyethelene, developed for use in weapons, into food containers. Inspired by a paint can, in 1945 he developed the watertight, airtight Tupper seal.

But his Wonderbowl languished on store shelves. In 1947 a young mother and divorcee named Brownie Wise was living in Detroit when she stumbled across Tupper’s product. Wise was a self-taught saleswoman who never got past eighth grade growing up in rural Georgia, but she had an intuitive gift for marketing.

In 1951, she traveled to Massachusetts to meet with Tupper. She argued that his products should be sold not in stores, but at home parties, where women would demonstrate the revolutionary unbreakable, unspillable bowls to their friends and neighbors.

Tupper not only bought her reasoning, he hired her on the spot to head up his entire sales operation, Tupperware Home Parties. From the company’s lush new headquarters just outside Orlando, Florida, Wise began to train an army of Tupperware ladies to put on parties and recruit new women into the business. She inspired and motivated her sales force, rewarding them with minks, appliances, and European vacations. Wise developed exuberant annual Jubilees filmed by the company, and excerpted in this documentary that were equal parts costume party, business training, cheerleading, and Hollywood glitz. “It was like a fairy tale,” remembers dealer Li Walker. “Like you’re in a wonderland.”

Tupperware

Credit: Smithsonian Archives Center, National Museum of American History This image may be used only in the direct promotion of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: “Tupperware!”. No other rights are granted. All rights are reserved. Editorial use only.

The complete news release:

In the 1950s, American women discovered they could earn thousands — even millions — of dollars from bowls that burped. “Tupperware ladies” fanned out across the nation’s living rooms, selling efficiency and convenience to their friends and neighbors through home parties. Bowl by bowl, they built an empire that now spans the globe.

On Tuesday, February 14, ‘American Experience’ reprises Tupperware!, a documentary by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt (A Midwife’s Tale) on PBS. Narrated by Kathy Bates, this funny, thought-provoking film reveals the secret behind Tupperware’s success: the women of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds who discovered they could move up in the world without leaving the house. Tupperware! charts the origins of the small plastics company that unpredictably became a cultural phenomenon. It all began with the unlikely partnership of Earl Silas Tupper, a reclusive small-town inventor, and Brownie Wise, a self-taught marketing whiz. At a time when women, who had been celebrated for working in factories during World War II, were being pushed back to the kitchen, Wise showed them how to defy the limitations they faced by starting up their own businesses-based in their kitchens.

In Tupperware!, rare archival footage of Tupperware parties, annual Tupperware Jubilees, and home movies are interwoven with the thoughtful, often humorous recollections of Tupperware salespeople and executives who experienced firsthand the company’s meteoric rise. A companion Web site at pbs.org features interviews with people who built their lives around Tupperware, Jubilee footage, pages from Earl Tupper’s invention notebooks, an exploration of gender roles, and insights from a plastics expert.

Tupperware seemed to be custom-made for a post-war America in love with modern conveniences. But it wasn’t an instant success. Its creator, Earl Tupper, spent years doggedly tinkering with his machines in the heart of Massachusetts plastics industry. Eventually, he figured out how to mold raw polyethelene, developed for use in weapons, into food containers. Inspired by a paint can, in 1945 he developed the watertight, airtight Tupper seal.

But his Wonderbowl languished on store shelves. In 1947 a young mother and divorcee named Brownie Wise was living in Detroit when she stumbled across Tupper’s product. Wise was a self-taught saleswoman who never got past eighth grade growing up in rural Georgia, but she had an intuitive gift for marketing.

In 1951, she traveled to Massachusetts to meet with Tupper. She argued that his products should be sold not in stores, but at home parties, where women would demonstrate the revolutionary unbreakable, unspillable bowls to their friends and neighbors.

Tupper not only bought her reasoning, he hired her on the spot to head up his entire sales operation, Tupperware Home Parties. From the company’s lush new headquarters just outside Orlando, Florida, Wise began to train an army of Tupperware ladies to put on parties and recruit new women into the business. She inspired and motivated her sales force, rewarding them with minks, appliances, and European vacations. Wise developed exuberant annual Jubilees filmed by the company, and excerpted in this documentary that were equal parts costume party, business training, cheerleading, and Hollywood glitz. “It was like a fairy tale,” remembers dealer Li Walker. “Like you’re in a wonderland.”

Wise transformed the stereotype of the suede-shoed door-to-door salesman into a woman in heels, no less. Women who had worked in factories or five-and-tens or on farms were now dressed in white gloves and hats, self-assured, able to speak publicly with confidence. “It was a very privileged job. Tupperware moved us up to being a lady,” says dealer Clairie Brooks. Perhaps most importantly, Wise encouraged these women to believe in themselves and dream big. Brownie had the ability to talk to your dreams. You could suddenly see yourself being something you hadn’t thought about before,” recalls salesperson Sylvia Boyd.

A successful female executive in a man’s world was news. In a carefully crafted publicity strategy, Wise was positioned as Tupperware’s public face, despite Tupper’s objections. As the company grew, she appeared on talk shows, was quoted by newspapers, and was featured in dozens of well-known magazines, including Business Week — the first woman ever to grace their cover.

Tupperware!, continued Tupper grew annoyed when the press implied that his plastic products owed their success entirely to Brownie Wise’s marketing know-how. Relations between Tupper and Wise, once cozy, became contentious as they tussled for control. On January 28, 1958, as projected sales reached $100 million, Tupper fired Wise with next to no warning, cutting her off with a $35,000 settlement. Before the year was out, he sold the company for $16 million and later bought an island in Central America, where he continued to invent gadgets and gizmos.

Stunned by her dismissal, Brownie attempted to get back on her feet. She launched Cinderella, a home-party cosmetics company. It folded within a year.

“The story of Earl Tupper, Brownie Wise, and her Tupperware ladies takes us into the heart of twentieth-century America,” says Kahn-Leavitt. “Tupperware!  reveals the lives of women with very few options who remade themselves and built an empire based on plastic dishes. Their funny, straightforward, often poignant stories tell us a lot about the history of selling, the changes in expectations for women, and the importance of recognition and applause in all of our lives.”

Credits:

A Filmmakers Collaborative/Blueberry Hill Productions film for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. Produced, written and directed by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt
Co-producer: Robin Hessman
Editor: William A. Anderson
Director of photography: Peter Stein
Narrator: Kathy Bates
Major funding for this program provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities,
Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, J. P. Morgan Chase, and the Lemelson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE is a production of WGBH Boston.
Executive producer: Mark Samels
Major funding for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. National corporate funding provided by The Scotts Company and Liberty Mutual. Additional funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public television viewers

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Comments

  1. says

    Pam – I too was fascinated with the relationship between Tupperware and the role of the post-war woman, and especially the story of Brownie Wise, and all of the women who were portrayed in the first chapter of the Tupperware video above.
    I grew up with a mom who subscribed to Ms. Magazine in the 1970s and it still blows my mind that even though women proved they could work just has hard as men during WWII that they were then told to step back into the home just like nothing had happened, and what little opportunity there was for them outside of the home.
    The fact that I have a choice of what I want to do with my life is such a recent option, and I often think back on all of the women in my families who would have killed for the freedom of choice that so many of us consider normal these days. I try to make ’em all proud!

    Yep, I’ll have to tell Retro Roadhusband that he’ll have to feed me my Valentine’s day bon-bons as I watch the Tupperware special!

  2. Chutti says

    Oh, I adored seeing this in a hotel on the road-what a treat!

    BTW- that bell systems film clip at the beginning is the genesis of a favorite saying about pretty much anything swell we find for the kitchen…
    ” a bright red PHONE!”

    I just love this story, and especially the history of alternate career paths for post war women.
    ….goes with another of my pet theories about the whole Tiki thing: vets wanted to share some of the exotic sights, sounds and tastes with they saw on duty without having to go into war stories. Tiki was a fun way to do that.

    Thanks for sharing-I didn’t catch the whole thing the first time around. Someday I’ll get to visit the museum.
    Talk about made in america-very cool!

  3. Chris H says

    I’ve seen this before, on PBS. Pay special attention to how far women could rise within the tupperware organization.

  4. says

    Wow, the video clip has me really looking forward to the show tomorrow! I’m right there with you, Pam. I am also fascinated by the history of women’s influence on our culture — but my fascination goes back a little farther from WWI onwards. (How quirky of me! 🙂 ) Interesting how Tupper pushed out Wise right before he sold the company for millions. Seems to have a parallel with the women working during WWII being were pushed out of the workforce after the war.

  5. chris says

    I’ve seen the PBS documentary. VERY good! Strangely enough, I saw it the week before I’d agreed to have a Tupperware party for a friend.

    I quickly became a Tupperware Ho’ — if I may be so uncouth to use this term on this very refined blog. 🙂

    I made a lot of money from hosting the party — spent it all on storage containers. My pantry is Tupperware Town. I absolutely love it! Even my husband — who thought I was crazy — said his cereal and chips stayed fresh a lot longer. (And no, I don’t sell it, despite my enthusiasm!)

    I’m glad PBS is re-running this…. I think it’s time to watch it again!

    🙂

  6. Jeff says

    Superb story- will be watching it. One note on vintage Tupperware- don’t put hot stuff in it, don’t microwave it, and don’t wash it in a hot dishwasher- it leeches toxins, and should be used for cold storage only.

  7. puddletown cheryl says

    I went to a Tupperware party in 1979 in Berlin. The saleswoman was an American solder’s wife and the Germans pronounce Tupperware with a long u, the w is a v and there’s short a at the end. There were Americans . Brits and Germans, of course. Truly international.

  8. tammyCA says

    I set to record the show…I went to a few Tupperware parties back in the 70s…still have the little pastel shotglass size cups.

  9. Jamie Farone says

    Truely amazing show… I enjoyed it very much… It really does make you appreciate your own life in how you can accomplish anything and not have to be pushed back in the shadows to have a man handle your business… Women are just as creative as men are if not more… I really believe if it werent for Brownie Wise, Tupperware wouldnt have had the success it had.. I wish I could have been apart of the Tupperware success eras.. Im only 25… If only I were 25 or younger in the 50s-60s.. Such impowerment… I know i would have made an excellent Tupperware sales lady… or even Avon or Mary Kay.. The world is different now to even consider a career choice such as that.. But.. Back in those days it was a boomin’ business and everyone who was apart of it seemed to live the life.. Just to go to one of those jubilees would have been endsville for me!! Especially when they had the gold rush one.. i would have loved to dig up a mink coat in a box or a refrigerator!! LOL

  10. Peter says

    Pam,

    Thanks for the hot tip on Tupperware. I just viewed the online documentary and was impressed. The vast majority of today’s direct-sales companies would be wise to embrace the integrity and adherence to product emphasis that Brownie and Tupperware production display(ed). Sadly, much of the emphasis [with other multi-level marketers]is on building “down-line” personnel or “legs” to peddle vastly inferior and over-priced products.

    Maybe the post-war era was a bit innocent; but, maybe today we’ve gotten just a bit too precocious…and that dysfunctional sensibility can spread like a metastatic force across a once-great society. Let’s keep the American experience alive – however one chooses to act upon that dream.

  11. joan massey says

    From leftovers from the war to leftovers for the kitchen. Wow. Great story. Too bad Mr. T turned out to be a big T- – D and left the women behind the marketing in the bin. I’m thinking Karma might have gotten to his little island by now. LOL

  12. says

    I love this! As an Authorized and Indpendent Tupperware Representative, I can honestly say that Ms. Wise paved the way for generations of women. I admire her tenacity and passion for what she loved and cherished. I’m known locally as the Tupperware Lady of Alabama and with our recent move, I’m now known as the Tupperware Lady of Tennessee! I love my job and love the flexibility that this company gives me and my family. They offer an amazing opportunity and potential for several opportunities including advancement, gift incentives and above all else, a kindred friendship with a wonderful group of people!

  13. Brenda Reamy says

    I have been waiting patiently for a Retro Renovation story on early Tupperware! I sold Tupperware from 1985 until 1999…so I am quite familar with the ‘back story’ of the early years of Mr. Tupper and Ms. Brownie Wise. Somewhere in my attic (if they did not get lost in my 2012 move!) I have a collection of old Tupperware catalogs. The early ones had order forms attached with carbon paper between to make a copy for the hostess! l will try to get up to the attic soon and look for them

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