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One More Brownie Wise Is All That Tupperware Needs Right Now

Tupperware Brands Corp. is in trouble. The venerable company, whose food containers became symbols of postwar prosperity, is facing a funding shortfall that has put its business at risk of failing. If that happens, we could lose far more than an iconic brand. We’d lose a company built on one of the most peculiar partnerships in the history of business.

The first half of this enterprising odd couple was eccentric New Englander Earl Silas Tupper. A devotee of body-building and self-help books, Tupper aspired to invent something that would make him an avatar of technological progress and modern living.

As Alison Clark notes in her history of the company, Tupper’s initial efforts in the 1930s fell short. He designed wildly disparate contrivances such as a “Tupper Bomb,” which killed with carbon dioxide; a hair pin designed for wigs; and a surgical instrument that facilitated “appendix removal thru [the] anal opening.”

The anal appendectomy, like his other inventions, found few takers. Tupper, who considered himself a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci, confided to his diary that, like his idol, he was “strapped for money [with] notebooks full of sketches and a house full of models and inventions.”

Then his life took a fateful turn. In 1938, he did some work for a plastic manufacturer. Intrigued by the new material’s promise, he quickly founded his own firm and began playing with polyethylene, a new kind of odorless plastic. He used it in World War II to make parts for gas masks, but also made prototypes of bowls and storage containers.

After war’s end, Tupper patented his “Tupper-seal,” flexible lids that capped all of his products with an airtight seal, launching a new product line of plastic household items. In 1947, House Beautiful praised Tupper’s designs as “fine art,” with one writer describing his bowls as having “a profile as good as a piece of sculpture.”

By the late 1940s, many critics lauded Tupperware for putting high-quality, handsome household items within reach of the suburban middle class. In 1948, for example, the Herald Tribune praised Tupper’s “feather-weight” wares as an ideal choice for brides with a taste for “modern design.”

But the hosannas of the nation’s tastemakers didn’t translate into sales. Americans remained skeptical of using plastic for storing food, and it didn’t help that the new containers made a strange “burp” when you sealed them. By 1948, writes Clark, “stacks of unsold Tupperware collected dust on the shelves of hardware stores.”

Tupper realized that in order to sell Americans on the product, he would have to demonstrate its virtues over conventional materials. But he was stumped on how best to do that. Little did he realize that a handful of female entrepreneurs had already cracked the code.

A decade earlier, a company known as Stanley Home Products had pioneered a direct-sales concept known as the “hostess party.” The idea was simple: enlist a woman to invite 15 or 20 friends and neighbors together to watch a demonstration of a product. The hostess would receive a non-cash gift for her troubles; everyone who attended would get free samples or other trinkets.

Women quickly embraced the new method of selling, which offered flexible hours and a way to make ends meet. Typical of this new breed of entrepreneur was Brownie Wise, a middle-aged divorced mother from Detroit who had parlayed work with Stanley Home Products into a lucrative and expansive sales operation.

At some point in the late 1940s, Wise discovered Tupperware and quickly began hawking the stuff at “Poly-T Parties.” Wise began to recruit other women to sell Tupperware, too. When Tupper realized the astonishing levels of sales Wise had racked up, he hired her to run a new division of his company: Tupperware Home Parties.

Wise immediately began building a national sales force in which virtually everyone worked on some form of commission. Regional managers oversaw territories, hiring the “dealers” — frontline saleswomen — tasked with recruiting the “hostesses” who would open up their homes and give the dealer access to their networks of female friends and family members. 

The Tupperware Party quickly assumed an outsize place in female suburban life thanks to Wise, who created subversive party games that broke down inhibitions and encouraged a female esprit de corps. A favorite activity was “Hubby,” in which housewives crafted fake newspaper ads in which they pretended to sell their unwanted husbands. “One husband for sale,” one attendee wrote. “Balding, often cranky, stomach requiring considerable attention.”

Wise’s approach to sales was equally playful. She would fill a Tupperware bowl with grape juice — a stain disaster in the making — and then hurled the bowl across the living room to one of the audience members, with nary a leak. Thanks to these and other bits of theater, the orders started pouring into Tupperware headquarters.

By the early 1950s, Tupperware consisted of two distinct companies:  a man’s world of research, development, production and manufacturing overseen by Earl Tupper at a factory in Massachusetts; and a raucous women’s world of guerilla sales and marketing run by Brownie Wise, who set up shop at an extravagant corporate compound in Orlando, Florida, that served as the “mecca” for the Tupperware faithful. 

It was here that Wise welcomed the faithful to receive her benediction, dipping their hands in the “Poly Pond” to formalize their membership in the new religion. More experienced saleswomen came to Orlando to collect prizes for breaking sales records, or simply to participate in the Tupperware Jubilee, an annual event that was equal parts June Cleaver and Burning Man.

When Business Week put her on the magazine cover in 1954 — the first woman to earn this honor — it praised her “off-beat tactics,” which had transformed a struggling plastics firm into the envy of the retail world. By this point, Tupperware was no longer sold in conventional retail establishments. The only way to get it was through Wise and her army of dealers and hostesses.

From that point forward Wise became a celebrity figure, always ready with a quip for the press and preternaturally gifted at motivating the thousands of women who turned to selling Tupperware. Wise marketed an image of herself as a resourceful entrepreneur who had overcome being abandoned by her husband to achieve not only self-sufficiency, but considerable wealth.

The contrast between Tupper, who hated crowds, and Wise, who loved hosting pep rallies for her sales force, became increasingly stark. As Wise honed her public image — adopting a particular shade of pink for the clothes she wore and the car she drove — Tupper retreated from the public eye.

By the late 1950s, relations between the two soured. Tupper found Wise’s reliance on extravagant sales incentives and her endless domination of the limelight infuriating. When Wise published a memoir broadcasting her over-the-top approach to sales and life generally, Tupper got the board of directors to push her out before selling the company and heading into retirement.

Remarkably, the company pioneered by this unlikely couple survived the split. For the rest of the 20th century, Tupperware thrived, building on the innovations of both Tupper and Wise to remain an extremely profitable, if unconventional, company. 

In more recent decades, Tupperware shed its reputation as a design trendsetter, much less an engine of female empowerment. When the company made the fateful decision to sell its wares in Target like any other household good, the brand became increasingly hard to distinguish from other purveyors of plastic.

If the company is going to claw its way back to solvency, it’s going to need more than a loan. It’s going to need to rediscover a version of the strange alchemy unleashed when Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise joined forces so many years ago.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• The Question Isn’t Whether to Shop, It’s Where: Leticia Miranda

• Disney Embraces Role as Hero to DeSantis’s Villain: Beth Kowitt

• Bud Light Kicked a Hornet’s Nest and Ran Away: Ben Schott

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen Mihm, a professor of history at the University of Georgia, is coauthor of “Crisis Economics: A Crash Course in the Future of Finance.”



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