It wouldn’t fly today. But back in 1938, when plastic was new, exciting and still very much the wonder material of the future, Earl Tupper (yes, really) was onto something. Something big.
Earl’s early life was not promising. The child of German immigrants, his first business — landscape gardening — went bust during the Great Depression. In desperation, Tupper bagged a job at Du Pont chemicals.
But he wanted more than just a job. Gathering together piles of black polythene slag, an unwanted byproduct of oil refining, Tupper went to work. He purified the slag into a clear liquid, then moulded it into robust and multifarious shapes. Shapes he could sell and shapes that — and this was one major reason why they sold — were entirely airtight. This was something as new as the plastic, and Tupper took out a patent.
He formed his Tupperware company in ’38, and began selling the containers into stores — in every shape, size and color. But then, in 1948, he got a strange call out of the blue from one Brownie Wise. She had achieved extraordinary success selling Tupperware products at parties she hosted in her house. Tupper immediately convinced Wise to become Vice President of Marketing.
And by the 1950s, selling via the Tupperware party had completely taken over; you couldn’t buy Tupperware in any store. It’s only slightly overstating things to suggest that the Tupperware party offered not only a plastic storage future to women, but also a financial one. In the years after WWII, here was a route for women to generate income for themselves. Well, up to a point.
By 1958, Tupper and Wise had fallen out. That was the official line — in fact, Earl wanted to exit, and he believed that he would not find a buyer for the company with a woman in an executive position.
Tupper sold for $16 million, got divorced, renounced his U.S. citizenship and moved to an island off the coast of Costa Rica. An island that he bought outright. And there he would remain for the rest of his life until 1983.
But Tupperware did not die. Far from it. Today his legacy is sold by almost two million people around the world.