Tupperware is a bit like Kleenex; No matter the brand, if it's a plastic container designed for leftovers, you probably call it by a single brand name. That's because, when it comes to designated plastic vessels that can be sealed and then opened and then resealed again, Tupperware was the first.
But Earl Tupper, Tupperware's inventor, did a lot more than just create a cleverly molded product. On the way to creating an icon, he changed plastic forever. He also almost failed completely.
Before he started inventing, Tupper established himself as an expert salesman. Way early. As a ten year old, little Earl figured out he could move more of his parents' farm's produce by selling it door-to-door.
Dude was convinced he would make his first million by the time he was thirty, and he tried a bunch of things to get there: He worked as a mail clerk, on a railroad labor crew, and even started a tree surgery and landscaping business. Although none lead to made him buckets of money (real surprise about that mail clerk gig...), he was undeterred.
In 1936 Tupper met Bernard Doyle. If success is a mix of sweat and luck, this was Tupper's moment of good fortune. Doyle headed up DuPont's still-young plastics division; a year after their initial meeting, Tupper took a job at the company. This, he said later, is where his education—and a hint at a future fortune—began.
He crammed at Dupont for a year, learning everything he could about polymers, before quitting and setting out on his own in 1938. The Earl S. Tupper Company started by molding industrial-grade plastics into things like gas masks and Navy Signal lamps. Good business during the war, but it wasn't going to make him his millions after the bullets stopped flying. Tupper started thinking about how he could bring plastics to the consumer market, where the demand for gas masks was unsurprisingly underwhelming.
He started with small stuff like sandwich picks and cigarette cases. But there was a pretty big problem with the plastics market: People really didn't like plastic. The petroleum-based material was still in its infancy and it had a bad rep for being greasy, smelly, and brittle. Think about it: Would you want a greasy sandwich pick? Would you want your tobacco picking up a nauseating eau de oil well? Plastic's bad rap was, at this point, totally justified.
Tupper saw his window, and realized that he could be the one to change the public's opinion of plastic by changing the material itself. By working out a way to purify black polyethylene slag—a waste product that comes from the oil refinement process—Tupper was able to create a plastic that was both tough yet flexible. It was also non-porous, not greasy, and see-through. It was a huge accomplishment, but even huger was how he showcased his innovation.
You know how a paint can seals up tight, opens, and then seals back up again, never letting its contents dry out? Tupper loved that seal, and realized his new material could bring the same functionality—sans screwdriver-opening—to food storage. In 1946 he fashioned a lidded container out of his clear plastic that would seal and reseal repeatedly, stopping air and liquid from escaping. It was called the Wonderlier Bowl. (He also made a "Bell Tumbler," whatever that is.) He'd fixed a known plastics problem and designed a better food container. Time to buy a new pad for all those stacks of cash, right? Nope. Two years in, his products still weren't selling.
People just didn't understand the lid's design. And based on their previous experience with plastics, they weren't willing to give Tupper's wares a shot. The product was good, but the public was in need of some water-cooler convincing.
In around 1948, though, Tupper noticed that his inventory was moving—though not off department store shelves. A direct-sales company called Stanley Home Products was selling a bunch of the stuff though a novel format: Local reps would have "parties," where they demonstrated various products to a willing audience. When consumers could check out—and, let's be honest, smell—the containers as much as they wanted, they realized the Wonderlier items were pretty awesome.
The parties were moving so much 'Ware that Tupper called a meeting with some of Stanley Home's regional reps to figure out how he could make the party his own. What he worked out there—women selling products to women in their own homes—finally brought Tupper his grand fortune. In 1958 he sold the company for a cool $16 million. The party strategy is still being used by the company today.
But the battle of public opinion lives on. In 2010 they made all their US and Canadian plastic products BPA free in an effort to keep those trendy new glass containers—the ones I still call Tupperware—at bay.
Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.
Drawing Board is where we explore the amazing origins of everyday objects. Know an interesting story? Tip us off at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: "Idea for drawing board," and we'll investigate.
Image courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History Archives Center