EXCERPT: 'Viral Loop'

Cultural and demographic shifts created an ideal environment for Tup-perware's ascent. As the 1940s swept into the 1950s and a painful recession gave way to a burgeoning economy, a diaspora ensued. Nineteenth-century pioneers had traveled westward to settle a vast, inhospitable continent, and a century later postwar baby boomers moved to suburbia; more than 80 per-cent of U.S. population growth in the 1950s occurred there. And they had money, with an average family income of $6,500, not quite double the na-tional average.

With these new homes came a desire to stock them with blenders, stoves, ovens, vacuum cleaners, and other appliances. In 1950, 9 percent of Ameri-can households had television; by 1959, 86 percent did (almost 44 million homes). About 1.7 million washing machines were sold in 1950; by 1960, 2.6 million. Lawn and porch furniture sales tripled to $145 million over the same period. By the middle of the decade the United States had, for the very first time, more white-collar than blue-collar workers. And, of course, there were the kids. Between 1948 and 1953 more babies were born stateside than had come into the world over the previous thirty years. Dr. Benjamin Spock's Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, first published in 1946, became a perennial bestseller and instructed a whole generation of baby boomer parents, while cloth diaper sales went from $32 million in 1947 to $50 million a decade later (disposables didn't hit the market until the 1960s). Toy sales shot up from $84 million in 1940 to $1.6 billion in 1960, a twenty-fold increase. Into this thriving consumerism stepped Tupperware, a brand that combined status and frugality with family values. "Get rid of your shower caps!" Brownie Wise urged. "Turn your leftovers into makeovers!"

Shortly after relocating to Florida, Wise encountered problems. Patio party dealers from Michigan who moved with her found that territory they had been promised was already covered by preexisting Tupperware sellers intent on protecting their turf. The same thing was occurring in other states, with the company's original network of dealers fending off these interlopers, undercutting them on price, offering fatter commissions, trying to blackball them in their communities, and even threatening to run them out of town. Although a young company, Tupperware was faced with the cannibalization of its existing business, a challenge confronting many on the precipice of change—today, for example, newspapers in the age of the Internet, film and camera companies such as Kodak and Polaroid, the music and movie indus-tries. It hobbled Wise's push to populate Florida with handpicked distribu-tors, and led to six months of infighting, until finally the company shaved her territory into a 650-mile swath from Miami to Savannah, Georgia, that she could run any way she saw fit. Despite all this, Wise booked more than $14,000 in sales in her first two months.

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