EXCERPT: 'Viral Loop'

Back then, American consumers were wary of synthetics. Plastic buttons cracked, tortoiseshell eyeglasses warped when laid too close to the radiator, Christmas toys broke out of the box, combs' teeth snapped, shower curtains putrefied into sticky clumps, and mixing bowls smelled like oil refineries and split, shattered, or peeled. The public's view was well expressed in The Plas-tics Inventor, a 1944 Disney cartoon starring Donald Duck, who bakes a plane from melted plastic and takes it out for a test spin. It works perfectly?.?.?.?until it rains and the plane turns into a gooey mess.

Tupper christened his discovery "Poly-T: Material of the Future" and by the end of the war, his factory churned out a steady stream of plastic mer-chandise. He was fielding orders from American Thermos Bottle Company for 7 million nesting cups, from Camel for three hundred thousand cigarette cases, and from Canada Dry for fifty thousand bowls to offer with its soft drinks. Time magazine estimated his annual revenue at $5 million. The Mu-seum of Modern Art in New York included two of his bowls in a special exhibit of useful objects. House Beautiful dubbed his designs "Fine Art for 39 cents."

Poly-T should have been ideal for food storage, except Tupper didn't have a lid to fit his thin-lipped containers. Before the 1940s, most American families had iceboxes; then came electric refrigerators, putting the ice-making industry out of business. To retard spoilage, consumers stretched shower caps over leftovers, which left an unpleasant aftertaste, or wrapped them in tin foil. It took a while, but Tupper, modeling his airtight seal after the inverted rim of a paint can, filed a patent application for an "Open Mouth Container and Nonsnap type of closure" on June 2, 1947, and Tupperware was born.

By 1949, Tupper's fourteen-piece "Millionaire's Line," composed of bowls and tumblers, was available at Bloomingdales, Gimbels, and Detroit's J. L. Hudson, at the time the tallest department store in the world. Despite a national media campaign that included newspaper ads, magazine articles, and prominent department store displays, sales of his eponymous tubs were disappointing. Consumers didn't know what to make of the "Wonderbowl" in pastel shades of blue, pink, and pearly white. They fumbled with creating an airtight seal to "lock in freshness," and some, complaining the tops didn't fit, even returned them, according to Bob Kealing, author of Tupperware Unsealed. A lot has happened since the late 1940s, when Tupper's business was in danger of being tossed out like a Chinese take-out carton, to today, when 90 percent of American homes own at least one piece of Tupperware and the company reports billions in revenue.

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