One of the men responsible for the global acceptance of plastic wares for the home was a dreamer and tinkerer. Earl Tupper enjoyed sketching and doodling. In the process, he often came up with gadgets and whatchamacallits. His diary, was really an illustrated notebook that contained his inventions and imaginings.
Early on, he came up with a knife-shaped comb that attaches to belts, a convertable top for rumble seats on cars, trousers that keep their crease, and hundreds of other ideas. Earl Tupper also came up with the line of products, known the World over, “Tupperware”.
Earl Silas Tupper was born on a farm near Berlin, New Hampshire on July 28, 1907 to Earnest and Lulu Tupper. His father managed the family farm and his mother oversaw a boarding home. Earnest was an unambitious tinkerer who thought up labor-saving devices for his farm. Meanwhile, the ten-year-old Earl turned out to be equally as creative, but, more importantly, very ambitious and enterprising. The youngster supplemented the family’s income by starting his own business that sold the family’s produce door-to-door.
After barely graduating from high school, in 1925, Earl stayed on with his parents and worked at their greenhouse and outside odd jobs. He also enjoyed mail-correspondence courses. One such course was advertising. He was soon convinced that advertising would change the future. In an effort to help sell more flowers, he unsuccessfully pitched the idea to offer a free “kiddie playland” on the greenhouse property.
When Tupper left home, he worked hard to sell his many inventions and gadgets, with little success. In order to support himself, Tupper operated a tree surgery and landscaping business. In 1931, he married Marie Whitecomb. As luck would have it, the Great Depression caused Tupper Tree Doctors to fail in 1936. However, Tupper was one of the fortunate few to find work in a factory in Leonminster, Massachusetts, in 1937.
The firm was Viscoloid manufacturing, the plastics manufacturing division of du Pont de Nemours Corporation. Tupper soaked up experience and knowledge of the plastics industry during his one-year stint with the DuPont plant.
The 31-year-old Tupper resigned from the Leominster factory in 1938 and set up his own business, The Earl S. Tupper Company. He bought some used machines from his former employer and began developing his own plastic products for the consumer market. The very first Tupper Plastics plant opened in 1942, at Farnumsville, Massachusetts. His goal was the “Tupperization” of every American kitchen.
Even though raw materials were hard to acquire during the war, Tupper Plastics was able to stay in business by manufacturing plastic parts for naval signal lamps and gas masks, among other military items. After the war, Tupper received a large block of polyethylene from the DuPont company. DuPont believed manufacturers could use plastics for consumer goods.
Tupper was unhappy with the plastic, because it contained fillers that made it difficult to mold. Tupper requested pure polyethylene pellets from DuPont. The skeptical company complied and shipped some to Tupper. He tinkered and tweaked until the right formula and processes were invented. The result was his first line of Tupperware bowls.
Tupper set about to market his bowls and containers. The smallest ones were offered as free cigarette premiums. The main product was the Tupperware “Wonderbowl”, featuring its patented “burping” seal”. The innovation was inspired by the grooved design of metal paint can lids.
The bowls were first distributed to department stores. His first independent marketing effort was a showroom on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The public was disinterested, though, because they associated plastic housewares with their previous experiences of poor quality plastic items from other manufacturers. Again, Tupper suffered through hard financial times.
Meanwhile, a single mother, with no formal business training, Brownie Wise, was honing her own skills. The divorcee worked as a secretary for Bendix Aviation and as a saleswoman for a clothing store. To earn extra money, Wise began to sell Stanley Home Products’ cleaning aides and brushes. The sales were conducted at home party demonstration, get togethers. Wise eventually became a top seller for the products.
Then, Wise noticed the Tupperware products languishing on the shelves at department stores. She and some other Stanley branch managers began to sell quantities of the Tupperware as a side business. Soon, Earl Tupper noticed the spike in Tupperware sales figures. In 1951, Tupper invited Wise to join his company and head up the sales department. Wise developed and managed the “Tupperware Home Parties” division in Florida.
The pair was an odd but smart one. Wise was the extroverted, flamboyant executive. Tupper was more of the perfectionist, geeky, introvert inventor. The company and its products became very successful.
Corporate changes soon came at lightning speed. There are a few stories about those changes, among them were tax worries and supposed jealousy about the success of Brownie Wise in the company. In 1958, Tupper unceremoniously fired Wise. No reasons were given. Months later, Tupper sold Tupperware to Justin Dart and Rexall Drug Company. Next he divorced his wife and bought an island in Central America.
Tupper relinquished his US citizenship and became a citizen of Costa Rica, where he lived out his retirement. He continued to tinker and invent things, but none of his other inventions ever caught on. They included a round stove, a combination clothes washer/exercise cylinder for traveling salespeople, and improvements on hospital equipment.
Earl S. Tupper died in Costa Rica on October 5, 1983 from a heart attack. His legacy includes the Earl S. Tupper Research and Conference Center at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. This includes numerous laboratories for chemistry, acoustic communication, entomology, histology, and plant physiology.