Inventor of the plastic bowl is saved from destruction by the home party


Earl Silas Tupper was born to a small farmer in Berlin, New Hampshire. His mother ran a small boarding house and his father Earnest invented all kinds of things to simplify the work on the farm and in the greenhouses.

He received a patent on one of them, a skeleton for cleaning chickens. Earl obviously had the inventing from his father. After graduating from high school, he continued to work in his parents' greenhouses.

According to the annals, he was determined to make his first million dollars before he was thirty.

He worked for a while as a clerk and on the railroad. In 1928 he took a course in tree surgery and founded the company Tupper Tree Doctors. He married in 1931. The depression years worked against him.

For his wife Marie, his sisters and their friends, he invented colored knitting needles, non-slip suspender hooks, an instrument to help menstruation and celluloid fake nails with funny paintings.

Then came the Komoflage comb, a combination of a nail file and a comb, packaged like a fountain pen that men could carry discreetly in the pockets of their jacket.

He designed an animal-friendly animal trap and, after undergoing an operation himself, came up with an instrument that could be used to remove the appendix in a non-surgical way, namely through the anus.

Tupper Tree Doctors went bankrupt in 1936. Tupper came into contact with a man who worked as a subcontractor for the plastics division of the chemical giant Du Pont de Nemours. In 1938 he founded his own plastics company that mainly supplied Du Pont with parts.

During the Second World War, for example, plastic parts for gas masks. Only afterwards, in 1945, was he able to market his own plastic invention.

In that year he produced his first polythene object: a 20 centilitre bathroom cup. The seamless beauty, the low price and the quality impressed.

In 1946, cups and bowls appeared in a range of matte pastel shades, from lime green to lemon yellow, from plum to ruby red. Tupper started in 1951, moved over to Europe in 1960, needed an extra year to develop a perfectly airing moisture-tight lid.

A paint can helped. Tupper's 'sealed' lid, an inverted paint can lid, actually closed, without anything leaking out when dropped or bumped.

By first bending the well-fitting lid slightly on one side and then pressing the jar shut, a partial vacuum was created, while the external air pressure strengthened the closure.

The typical sigh that arose in this way when closing was quickly compared to letting a burp, a burp.

House Beautiful magazine ran an extensive story on Tupper's work in 1947, labeling his bowls "art for 39 cents: seamless and soft like jade, reflecting light like alabaster or pearls." And the design was so enticing that the New York's Museum of Modern Art bought two Tupper bowls to include in its permanent collection.

For a while, Earl Tupper was doing well.

In 1948, he told Time magazine that his special kind of plastic had meanwhile been used for seven million screw-on thermos cups, for 50,000 snack dishes sold with Canada Dry, and for 300,000 cheap Camel cigarette cases.

He had meanwhile launched double-walled ice cube cups and chips for playing poker. And he'd sold a pair of noiseless lidded plates to a Massachusetts nerve clinic. Tupper expected sales of $5 million in 1948.

And then silence set in. To start with, the general public was far from being won over to the use of plastic in the kitchen. Tupperware's predecessors had made a bad impression; the early plastic just stunk, the food tasted like it.

In addition, the lid was so revolutionary that it did not catch on. Customers returned the bowls 'because they don't function as the seller showed me'.

In the traditional stores, no one had time to calmly teach customers how to burp from such a Tupperware lid. Plates and bowls got dusty on the racks.

Until in 1951 a Mrs Brownie Humphrey Wise caught the attention of Earl Tupper. She had first sold door-to-door for the Stanley Home Products company and, on the basis of her success, had acquired her own distribution.

Because Stanley didn't offer a complete range, she had bought Tupperware for her home parties – gatherings where all kinds of household items are demonstrated.

The sessions lasted an average of two hours and gave ample opportunity to demonstrate 'burping' with the lid. Tupper lit up. In 1951, he founded the Tupperware Home Parties firm and bombed Wise as Vice President of Sales.

He stopped trading through shops. In three years, more than 9,000 salespeople started working in the United States. In 1954, sales rose to $25 million in one fell swoop.

This was due to the rapidly increasing use of refrigerators, for which the new containers proved to be ideal. The fact that Tupper gave a lifetime warranty on all his products was quite spectacular within the American disposable culture.

Barely four years later, the inventor sold his firm to Rexall Drug & Chemical Company for $9 million.

In 1960 the sales method spread to Great Britain, in 1961 to the European mainland. Today, a Tupperware party takes place somewhere in the world every 2.6 seconds. About 85 million people took part in such a party in 1995.

Annual revenue is $1.3 billion with a net profit of more than $200 million. The company can count on 730,000 salespeople.

Only 18% percent of sales are in the United States. Europe comes in first with 42% of sales. Asia follows with 27%. Tupperware offers more than 200 products today. The hub of the organization in Europe is the technical headquarters in Aalst, Belgium.

Earl Tupper was able to enjoy his fortune for another 25 years after the sale of his company. Until his retirement in 1973, he continued to work for his old firm as an employee.

Then he withdrew to Costa Rica where he focused on the manufacture of functionless devices, related to the mechanical art of Panamarenko. He left the United States because of the high taxes: "Then at least there will be something left for my five children," he said.

He died in October 1983, aged 76, in the Costa Rican capital of San José. As the Tupperware brand name became known worldwide, the man who introduced the plastic to the kitchen fell into total obscurity.