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TUPPERWARE by Alison J. Clarke

TUPPERWARE

The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America

By Alison J. Clarke

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 1-56098-827-4

A dense, meticulously researched cultural history of Tupperware that attempts to understand the process by which objects of mass consumption are appropriated as meaningful artifacts of everyday life. Clarke begins with the premise that Tupperware has indeed become a cultural symbol for the American way of life (circa 1950) and that worldwide sales of $1.2 billion in 1997 are a strong indicator of the appeal of that symbol. She explores how one object of mass consumption can come to matter for our cultural identities more than others. In the case of Tupperware, the product itself is less important than the method by which it was marketed. When Earl Silas Tupper invented the process for making the product in 1942, he was able to get his wares distributed to department stores nationally, but sales were quite low. Then he adopted the method of Brownie Wise, a middle-aged housewife who had churned out impressive sales of products door-to-door to pay her young son’s medical bills—and the company began to turn a serious profit. With Wise at the head of his newly created “party-sales” department, Tupper was freed to tinker with an endlessly more complicated and decorative product line. In 1954 Wise became the first woman ever to appear on the cover of Business Week. Tupperware and the Tupperware party are often cited as indications of the homogeneity and conspicuous consumption typical of middle-class suburbia in the 1950s, but Clarke seeks to counter the notion of the suburban housewife as a passive consumer by emphasizing the business skills of Wise and many of her sales force. While signifying domesticity, Tupperware simultaneously situated women in the economic sphere. This impressive foray into the material culture of the 1950s complicates many of the truisms concerning American consumerism and suburban living during the period.