January 28, 2004: A moment with...

Laurie Kahn-Leavitt

(Photo by Joshua Touster )

Laurie Kahn-Leavitt ’78

Conducting research at the Smithsonian Institution, filmmaker Laurie Kahn-Leavitt ’78 uncovered the papers of Earl Silas Tupper, who invented Tupperware, and Brownie Wise, who built an empire for Tupper by inventing the Tupperware party and recruiting an army of women to sell Tupper’s wares. The result, a documentary called Tupperware, which will be shown on February 9 on PBS’s American Experience, is the tale of two people, a company, and a generation of women. Now the head of her own production company, Kahn-Leavitt spoke with Kathryn Beaumont ’96.

What is dramatic about this story?
Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise are two larger-than-life, very ambitious, but incomplete human beings. They aren’t able to succeed on their own, they finally stumble into one another and take off, but they can’t see that they need each other. Their relationship spirals out of control, and Earl eventually fires Brownie. That is the dramatic arc, but at the heart of my story are the working-class women who became Tupperware ladies. A lot of them had jobs at factories, at the 5-and-10, or on their family farms, and none of them went to college. Yet by selling Tupperware they were able to do things they never dreamt they could do.

How did they do that?
These women needed extra money to buy the things most Americans wanted after World War II: a house, a television, a car, a nice dress, the occasional vacation. But back in the ’50s, women were told in thousands of different ways – in advertisements, government propaganda, magazine articles, and child-rearing books – that they belonged at home, not in the workforce. Tupperware offered them a way out: They could earn money by operating businesses based in their own kitchens. The Tupperware ladies subverted the system little by little, from the inside. They helped one another get around the husbands who objected. One woman I interviewed, Anna Tate, told me she would speak with the husbands of potential recruits: “You know, you bring in the bread. You’re the breadwinner. But she can bring in a little cake.” Many women stayed in the business just long enough to buy the carpet or TV they wanted. But others stuck with it and earned serious money, enabling their families to buy homes, help out sick relatives, and travel around the world. Some of the Tupperware ladies even retired with millions.

How important were the parties?
Tupperware parties gave women a chance to get together, to play silly games and laugh, and to socialize. In the ’50s and ’60s, you couldn’t buy plastic containers like Tupperware in the grocery stores and hardware stores. You had to go to a Tupperware party to get them. But the parties weren’t just about the product. Women also went to support their friends and neighbors – the hostesses and salespeople. Tupperware ladies recruited at Tupperware parties. And the message was, you can do this, too! You can make money at a job that’s part-time, control your own hours, and build your own business.

What do you make of a woman like Brownie Wise, who was fired by Tupper after building the company?
Brownie was a very American, Gatsby-like character. She reinvented herself, she tenaciously strove to succeed, and she achieved an amazing amount for a woman who never got past the eighth grade. Every home-party selling company is indebted to Brownie, whether they know it or not. She’s the one who perfected home-party selling as a marketing mechanism. But she was a woman ahead of her time. And I think she became a lightning rod for our culture’s anxieties about powerful women. She wasn’t just fired; she was erased from her company’s history.

What happened to Tupperware’s popularity?
First, Earl Tupper’s patent on many of his products, including his famous burping seal, ran out in the 1980s. At that point, Rubbermaid and other companies rushed in and started making products that might not be as good, but are very similar. And they sell them at grocery stores. But the success of Tupperware also was due to its marketing scheme. Tupperware and other home parties thrive wherever women don’t have many options. It’s a job they can do part-time, out of their houses, and they can control their own hours and not threaten their husbands. When women have more options, there are other ways for them to earn money – and women in this country have more options then they had back in the 1950s.

What’s next for you?
My ambition is to make 10 more films about extraordinary, ordinary women from the American past. If you look at the history as depicted on television, it’s almost all presidents and wars and disasters. There are so many great stories about women that never have made it to the screen.


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