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 Tuppers
wares. The result, a documentary called Tupperware, which will be shown
on February 9 on PBSs 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
Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise are two larger-than-life, very ambitious,
but incomplete human beings. They arent able to succeed on their
own, they finally stumble into one another and take off, but they cant
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. Youre 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
couldnt 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 werent 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 thats 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. Shes
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 cultures anxieties about powerful women. She wasnt
just fired; she was erased from her companys history.
What happened to Tupperwares
First, Earl Tuppers 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 dont have many options.
Its 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.
Whats 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,
its almost all presidents and wars and disasters. There are so many
great stories about women that never have made it to the screen.