If you peeked into a suburban living room in the 1950s, you might see a group of women in funny hats playing party games, tossing lightweight plastic bowls back and forth and chatting about their lives as they passed around an order form for Tupperware.
Well stocked with punch and cookies, the daytime parties were well mannered affairs. But Tupperware parties were more than they might seem. Although they engaged in lighthearted socializing at living rooms, Tupperware party organizers were running thriving, woman-owned businesses. And the women who participated in them weren’t just stocking their homes: they were experimenting with cutting-edge technology that helped food stay fresh for longer. During the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of women started their own home businesses selling Tupperware, breaking gender stereotypes even as they reinforced them.
The Tupperware Home Parties of the 1950s and 1960s were the only way to purchase a line of polyethylene plastic storage containers that were the brainchild of Earl Tupper, a Massachusetts businessman who figured out a way to turn an industrial byproduct into an improvement on plastic he called Poly-T. Tupper introduced Tupperware after World War II. But at first, nobody understood what they were or how to use them. It would take an ambitious woman—and an army of amateur salespeople—to sell the innovative containers to America.
Tupperware looked nothing like the plasticware that was in most women’s kitchens. At first, homemakers were wary of a material they associated with bad smells, a weirdly oily texture and cheap construction. The bowls’ most unique feature was also what held it back initially: the airtight lids wouldn’t seal unless they were “burped” beforehand, and that confused consumers, who returned them to stores claiming the lids didn’t fit.
The businessman needed a new sales strategy, and quick. Around the time that Tupper invented Poly-T, a cleaning products company called Stanley Home had debuted the “home party,” a new method of selling products directly to housewives. Stanley Home parties were a chance for women to buy products from salespeople in their home, not their doorstep, and to do so along with their friends.
One of Stanley Home’s salespeople, Brownie Wise, quickly saw the potential of the method to sell more than cleaning products. She formed her own business, “Patio Parties,” and began using the model to sell household goods, including Tupperware. Wise recruited her own sales force from local housewives, and trained them to sell the new plastic goods.
Tupperware had resisted direct-to-consumer sales from the start, preferring instead to place its products in department stores or use catalog sales. By the end of the 1940s however, business was languishing, in part because the products were so different from other plastics of the time. But Wise and other at-home demonstrators proved that Tupperware could be sold, if its use could be shown correctly. Tupper, who was aware of the success of Stanley Home’s model, decided to hire Wise as his general sales manager in 1951.
Recommended for you
“Tupper’s decision to invest wholeheartedly in amateur businesspeople and an informal, peripheral sales activity was either an act of inspired entrepreneurial vision or a reflection of his desperation,” writes historian Alison J. Clarke.
On the surface, Wise was an unusual choice to head up a plastics company’s sales force. Divorced and cash-strapped, she had worked as an advice columnist before she took up Tupperware sales. But Wise knew how to demonstrate Tupperware. Her at-home demos were fun and frenetic. She’d throw the plastic across the room to show that it didn’t break, and get friends laughing as they played silly party games that educated them about the product. As Wise trained more and more Tupperware dealers in the party sales method, she created a group of evangelists eager to connect with women in their homes.
They were helped along by the major socio-economic shifts of the post-war period. When World War II ended, new suburbs became destinations for families ready to settle down after the war. Husbands expected to return to their pre-war jobs, so many women who entered the job market during the war were pushed out of employment and encouraged to stay home with their children. Meanwhile, postwar prosperity helped encourage a massive baby boom. As a result, suburbs—most filled with white, middle-class mothers—were fertile ground for Tupperware parties.
The parties were a way to connect with old friends, make new ones, and participate in a booming consumer economy. Though they took place in living rooms, the events were a way to step away (if only temporarily) from the intensive domestic labor expected of housewives in that era. They were also a way for women who were discouraged from working outside the home to make money.
“Tupperware . . . took those moms out of the kitchen where they were 'supposed to be' and let them enter the workforce, and let them have something outside the home,” Lorna Boyd, whose mother Sylvia was a Tupperware dealer in the 1960s, told the Smithsonian Institution. Some Tupperware salespeople turned home parties into big business, and top sellers were rewarded with lavish gifts, like diamond rings and designer wardrobes, at the company’s annual sales meetings.
Tupperware parties didn’t just flourish in the suburbs, or among white women. “Black and Hispanic women, single mothers and divorcees formed the less visible force behind Tupperware’s expansion,” notes Clarke. Though its public face was white and suburban, the company made inroads in markets that were underestimated or overlooked by other companies.
Wise didn’t last at Tupperware—she was ousted after a conflict with Earl Tupper in 1958. She received no stock in the company she helped build and Tupper largely banned mentions of her from appearing in corporate literature. Shortly after Wise’s ouster, Tupper sold the company to Rexall, a drug store. But Tupperware—and Tupperware parties—live on.
Today, the company is publicly traded and thrives on the global market. Sold in almost 100 countries, overseas sales produce more than half of its revenue, and its largest market is Indonesia. And though the parties may no longer be ubiquitous in the United States, they still peddle the American dream to women in the developing world.