Selling the Bowl That Burps

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / January / February 2004
June 8th, 2007
Tupperware!, coproduced by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt and Robin Hessman ’94; narrated by Kathy Bates (airing February 9 on PBS’s American Experience, 9 p.m. EST).

In 1954, nearly a half-century before anyone invented reality TV, a marketing whiz named Brownie Wise filmed the first annual Tupperware Jubilee. The convention’s theme was the Gold Rush, and an army of 600 neatly bobbed saleswomen in crisp white blouses and clam-diggers raced across a Florida field bristling with shovels. Frenetically they dug, unearthing television sets and kitchen appliances. One woman practically swooned as she pulled a mink stole from a cardboard box.

The event undoubtedly boosted Tupperware’s sales force, but the woman it really put on the map was sales director Brownie Wise. Business Week ran her photo on its cover—a first for a woman—and named her Businesswoman of the Year—another first.

Four years later Brownie Wise was fired, purged from Tupperware memory.

The story of Brownie Wise, the global sales apparatus she built, and its impact on women’s lives is the subject of Tupperware!, an alternately kitschy, poignant, and beguilingly peppy PBS documentary that will air on American Experience during sweeps week in February. Coproduced by director Laurie Kahn-Leavitt and Robin Hessman ’94, the film draws on hundreds of interviews with Tupperware employees past and present, and cultural artifacts—vintage ads, jingles, newsletters, home movies, and company footage of jubilees. Against this backdrop, Tupperware! tells the story of Brownie (never Mrs. Wise) and her boss, Earl Silas Tupper (always Mr. Tupper).

Raised dirt poor in Massachusetts, Tupper was determined to make a fortune as an inventor. After a year with a plastics company, he went into the business himself. Inspired by the lid on a paint can and a shipment of pure polyethylene pellets (DuPont engineers claimed they couldn’t be molded), Tupper tinkered with his machinery until he succeeded in making unbreakable bowls with a leakproof seal. But for all his know-how, Tupper lacked social skills. “A little Dale Carnegie course would have fixed him up good,” Wise’s son drawls in the film.

Brownie Wise, too, grew up in poverty, the daughter of a divorced mother who traveled as a labor organizer. At twenty-four, Wise found herself in her mother’s shoes: divorced and with a toddler. She began selling home goods door-to-door, then cottoned on to the idea of party-plan sales and went to work for Tupperware.

Wise met Earl Tupper in 1951, when she called headquarters to complain that her order was late—again. She insisted on talking to Mr. Tupper, who was impressed enough to invite her up North. A “bowl that burps,” she told him, needed to be demonstrated: he should sell Tupperware exclusively through parties. He hired her on the spot, put her in charge of sales, bought 1,000 acres of cow pasture and swamp for her to develop into a Florida headquarters, and let her loose to build an empire.

Wise recruited women who needed money but didn’t want to work at the five-and-dime. One woman in the film describes her husband balking, fearing they’d be stuck with the cost of the demonstration kit. She’d already bought it, she confides: “I didn’t think this was the time to tell him.”

Tupperware ladies gave three, four, five, parties a day. Brownie urged them to recruit their friends. “Can’t you think of someone who could use a little extra cash?” she coaxed in her newsletter. Selling “modern dishes for modern living,”saleswomen made thousands, even millions, of dollars, and were feted at the annual jubilees. The luckiest got to appear on stage with the stylish, wasp-waisted Brownie.

When recruiting, they were expected to wear hats, gloves, hose, and heels. “Tupperware moved us up to being a lady,” one woman recalls. Top recruiters became managers. Managers became distributors. But here women hit the polyethylene ceiling. Tupperware distributorships were deemed two-person jobs, with husbands running the warehouses and wives building the sales force. These couples packed up the family station wagon and kids and moved to Fort Wayne or Wichita or St. Louis—wherever Tupperware beckoned. For all the good the company did its saleswomen, at the top it looked like any other American business. All of Wise’s managers and peers were men.

In the late 1950s something soured between Tupper and Wise. Their memos—once fawning—grew snippy. When she griped about unmet orders, he reminded her that the sales force existed for the company, not vice versa. When he demanded sales figures, she balked. In 1958 he fired her, reluctantly paying her $35,000. Less than a year later, Tupper sold the company for $16 million. He divorced his wife, gave up his U.S. citizenship, and bought himself an island in Central America. His patent expired in 1984—the year after he died.

That might be a sardonic note to end on, but the Tupperware spirit seems as unbreakable as the bowls themselves. A half-century after its invention, Tupperware is sold in 100 countries, and every 2.5 seconds a sales party is held somewhere on earth. As the credits roll, Tupperware! delivers its final salvo: clips of seventy- and eighty-year-old former saleswomen rustily singing their old pep song: “I got that Tupperware feeling all over me.” Listening, I found it strangely charming.

Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM’s managing editor.
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