It started with a 20 cl bathroom cup

Earl Silas Tupper (Berlin, New Hampshire, July 28, 1907 – San Jose, Costa Rica, October 5, 1983)

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 these, a skeleton for cleaning chickens. Earl clearly had the invention from his father. After his secondary education, he continued to work in his parents' greenhouses.

As a young man, he announced to all who would listen that 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 girlfriends, he invented colored knitting needles, non-slip suspender hooks, an instrument to start menstruation and fake celluloid nails with funny paintings.

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

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.

In 1936 Tupper Tree Doctors went bankrupt - not a million dollars at thirty. Through another inventor, he was able to work for a year in the polyethylene department of the chemical company DuPont.

Tupper: 'It's there that my education really started.' DuPont gave him a few tons of plastic waste for next to nothing to set up his own company. Through a purification process, he developed a new type of plastic from the slag, which he called Poly-T, for Polyethylene-Tupper.

During World War II, he supplied DuPont with plastic parts for gas masks. Only afterwards, in 1945, was he able to come up with his own stuff. The first Poly-T product was a 20 centiliter bathroom cup. The seamless beauty, the low price and the quality impressed.

In 1946 cups and bowls appeared in a series of matt pastel shades, from lime green to lemon yellow, from plum to ruby red.

Tupper needed an extra year to develop a perfectly air and moisture-tight lid. A can of paint did the trick. Tupper's 'sealed' lid, an inverted paint can lid, actually closed without leaking 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 devoted an extensive story to Tupper's work in 1947, labeling his bowls as "art for 39 cents: seamless and soft like jade, reflective like alabaster or pearls."

And the design was so enticing that New York's Museum of Modern Art purchased two Tupper bowls to include in its permanent collection.

Earl Tupper was doing well for a while. In 1948, he told Time magazine that his special kind of plastic had been used in seven million thermos screw cups, 50,000 snack trays sold with Canada Dry, and 300,000 cheap Camel cigarette cases.

In the meantime he had introduced double-walled cups for ice cubes and chips for playing poker. And he had sold a pair of silent plates with lids to a Massachusetts neurology clinic. Tupper projected 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 (1913-1992) caught the eye of Earl Tupper. She had first sold door-to-door products for Stanley Home Products and had acquired her own distribution based on her success.

Because Stanley did not offer a complete range, she had added Tupperware for her home parties – gatherings at which all kinds of household items are demonstrated. The sessions lasted an average of two hours and provided ample opportunity to demonstrate 'burping' with the lid.

Tupper turned on a light. In 1951, he founded Tupperware Home Parties and promoted Wise to vice president of sales. He stopped trading through shops. In three years, more than 9,000 salespeople went to work in the United States.

Turnover rose in 1954 to 25 million dollars in one fell swoop. The rapidly increasing use of refrigerators, for which the new containers proved to be ideal, was a cause of this.

The fact that Tupper gave a lifetime warranty on all its products was completely spectacular within the American disposable culture. Barely four years later, the inventor - after a conflict with Wise - sold his company for nine million dollars to Rexall Drug & Chemical Company.

In 1960 the sales method spread to Great Britain, in 1961 to the European mainland. Today, a Tupperware party takes place every few seconds somewhere in the world. Tupperware today offers more than 200 products.

The turntable 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 – he was 51 at the time. Until his retirement in 1973, he continued to work for his old firm as an employee.

Then he retired to the tax haven of 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: "At least there will be something left for my five children," he said. He also donated a fortune to the Smithsonian Tropical Institute, which studies biological diversity in Panama.

Then Tupper was again the farmer's son and 'tree doctor' of his younger years. He died in October 1983, aged 76, in the Costa Rican capital of San José.

While the Tupperware brand name became known worldwide, the man who introduced the plastic – a word he himself did not want to hear, it had to be Poly-T – in the kitchen fell into oblivion.
(See also: gore-tex, nylon, kevlar)