In 1950, Earl Tupper was sitting in his Leominster, Mass., office struggling with how to get his business off the ground when Brownie Wise called.
He never met Brownie Wise, but she phoned to tell him about a party. What happened next changed every kitchen in America.
Earl Tupper was born in Berlin, N.H., in 1907. His family moved to Lowell, Mass., where Earl grew up. He took a failed stab at a tree maintenance business. By 1946, Earl had his own firm in Leominster, making and selling plastic containers for storing food.
Birth of Tupperware
At the end of World War II, DuPont had distributed blocks of polyethylene to plastics companies. It had mass produced the stuff for war uses, but it hoped to find new uses for the material.
Tupper had a stroke of genius. He contacted DuPont and asked if they would send him a sample of the polyethylene before they added stiffening agents to it. The pliable plastic was exactly what he was looking for, and he shaped it into sealable food storage containers. The containers had a characteristic ‘burp’ when sealed: Tupperware.
Tupper had his plastic bowls selling in hardware and department stores, but they didn’t sell well – everywhere except one little Florida company that couldn’t get enough of his bowls. Why? he wondered. And so he contacted the company called Tupperware Patio Parties, run by Brownie Wise.
Brownie Wise was Tupper’s opposite, outgoing and vivacious. Born and raised in Georgia, she had married a Ford executive and moved to Dearborn, Mich. There, her marriage soured and she divorced.
She worked as a sales representative for Stanley Home Products, a Massachusetts-based company that sold cleaning goods through in-home sales parties. Brownie Wise quickly spotted the opportunity Tupper was missing.
His product needed a personal touch for people to understand it. At an in-home party, the product could be thrown on the floor to demonstrate its durability and tossed around to show how light it was. Sales reps could also show firsthand the Tupperware ‘burp’ that seals in the flavor of food.
Brownie Wise moved to Florida and started her patio parties company. At that point Earl noticed how much product she moved. During their first phone conversation, Earl invited Brownie to visit him in Massachusetts. Once they met, he knew she was right.
In the home, there would be no inhibitions or distractions. Housewives could picture his modernistic designs right in their own kitchens. And the sales force was there for the asking.
After getting a taste of economic freedom during World War II, many women wanted something other than homemaking. Tupperware sales parties were perfect.
Earl and Brownie created Tupperware Home Parties Inc., and Brownie became vice president. Earl would make the product, Brownie would sell it.
Over the course of several years, Brownie created a whole new kind of sales network, one that relied on fun sales conventions. She called them jubilees and filled them with skits and awards. Blenders and other kinds of incentives were added to the commissions, and a whole new type of sales structure rose up. Brownie’s all-woman sales force – taken for granted at home – reveled in the praise and celebration at their annual ‘sales jubilees.’
By 1958, business was booming. If only Brownie Wise and Earl had been able to continue their partnership, we can only wonder what might have been. Instead, she got bossy and arrogant. He got jealous and testy. Even though he paid to promote Brownie’s image as a whole new style of female executive, he resented people viewing her as the reason for Tupperware’s success.
So, without notice, Earl fired her and sold the company to Rexall Drug Stores. He then divorced his wife and moved to Costa Rica so he could avoid taxes. Tupperware rolled right along without either of them.
At first, Rexall talked of scrapping Brownie Wise’s innovations, like the sales jubilee. But employee after employee told the new company president that such a move would be a disaster. Rexall backed off and didn’t mess with success.
By the start of 2020, stock analysts left Tupperware Brands for dead because they saw too much debt and excessive costs. The company, though, cut costs and flourished during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people stayed home and cooked more. In December 2020, the financial news network TheStreet called it one of the best stocks of the year, noting, “Shares fell as low as $1.25 in March and recently closed at $36.64.”
Women are still holding Tupperware parties and attending jubilees in countries around the world.
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Images: Brownie Wise By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33209984. Tupperware By Melissa Highton – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=107261339. Tupperware assortment by By Mark Larson – https://www.flickr.com/photos/30792886@N00/3544195739/in/photolist-6pbVV6-cmeS8W-2LD5j4-3cTjz8-7G6C7f-efnHD-efnNX-3ycmba-3ycd3H-5fPENe-9MucPJ-5bt2L1-5kvsKf-6PYFv-49yf1M-w2DHU-7AYtpX-5krceZ-7tT9ou-dCeab2-4uWcqu-tYPJV-9VpsFB-4Zzu1U-4z2aJm-4qADX-7D4Psn-8nznXp-nnCoK-dD7A4a-btBHP9-7df4Kq-nnCij-dzijSo-5r5nta-5ETEW3-9kU7WF-6PYFu-4vVdGx-3ankiN-7EYAVh-7EUKRT-5ARNme-4JWVWK-5AW4W7-5ARMKR-6J7sFQ-5ARN6e-6NFim4-5ARNGZ-2Vo5E5, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28295511.
This story about Brownie Wise was updated in 2023.