12 April 2023

An elegy for the capitalist feminism of Tupperware


Twentieth century advertising was created by two titans, both with a background in door-to-door sales. One became the darling of Madison Avenue, wrote successful books, is still routinely quoted as an authority in the industry, and inspired Mad Men. That was David Ogilvy, who went from Aga salesman to advertising mogul, via a stint as an Amish farmer. The other, Brownie Wise, was also an expert salesperson, also transformed an industry, but has so far languished in relative obscurity. Now, as the company she helped make famous has warned that it is on the brink of bankruptcy, it’s time she got the recognition she deserves – not just as an entrepreneur, but as a pioneer of gender equality.

Wise was responsible for Tupperware becoming a household name. The plastic food containers were first invented in 1946 by Earl Tupper, a dour Texan who had created a good product but had no way of selling it to the target market – housewives. That was where Wise came in. She was a divorced mother who knew the power of a recommendation from a trustworthy source. While working as a sales representative for a homeware company that sold Tupperware, she came up with the idea for social events where women could sell products directly to each other and sign their friends up to do the same. As a hostess, she would demonstrate that Tupperware didn’t leak or break by tipping it upside down and throwing it across the room. Tupper was so impressed he hired her, and the ‘Tupperware party’ was born. The strategy sent sales to $10m, the equivalent today of over $100m, by 1958, and Wise became the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week with her slogan, ‘If we build the people, they will build the business’.

Wise and Tupper were riding a consumer boom like none before. As Noel Coward sang in 1955, ‘we all have frigidaires, radios, televisions, and movie shows to shield us from the ultimate abyss’. This was the age of the assembly line, the automobile, fast-food, consumer choice, and, of course, Tupperware – which became a ubiquitous part of the 1950s lifestyle. Flexible plastics were relatively new, having been perfected for use in consumer products before the war. But housewives had to get used to using something that looked so different. Brownie Wise knew that networking was the key to success, but also that it had to be women selling to women (just 5% of Tupperware sales people were men, usually as part of a husband and wife team). The time was ripe for Tupperware and its high heeled sales force. When you think of the classic 1950s women – hat and gloves, charm and smiles – you are thinking, in part, of the Tupperware woman. But these weren’t disempowered Betty Draper types – they went out to sell. 

Far from being an unwitting promoter of the patriarchy, selling domestic goods to docile housewives, Wise was a determined, independent woman who promoted the idea that ‘the only proper way to help people in trouble is to help them help themselves’. Tupperware offered a flexible job to women with domestic obligations who still wanted to work. For single mothers like Wise, who couldn’t fit an office job around their children, it was a godsend. Tupperware’s ability to help women go from rags to riches, as Wise had done, earned it the nickname ‘Cinderella company’. It was Wise’s self-help attitude that underpinned the success of the brand. ‘there’s nothing a women can’t do if she tries,’ she said. This was the American Dream for ambitious women, single mothers, divorcees, older unmarried women, and those on lower incomes. It was freedom through economic emancipation – capitalist feminism. 

But for Wise, it proved a poisoned chalice. Her success made her a celebrity, but also brought her into conflict with Tupper. As her biographer Bob Kealing says, Tupperware swept the nation like a wildfire – then Tupper fired Wise. She was sacked with only a year’s salary as severance and her name erased from the corporate literature. Yet the brand she helped build lived on, and in the late 1990s, Tupperware was doing over $1bn in sales, with an estimated 118m people having attended a Tupperware party, according to Alison J. Clarke. 

That world is now gone. Like Hoover, Tupperware is cursed with having given its brand name to a generic product. Rivals make similar products cheaper. Fast food is now so ubiquitous that there is perhaps less need to store leftovers. There is no need to lament the collapse of a company that’s failed to keep up with a changing world, but it is worth reflecting on its legacy.

In many ways TikTok and Instagram are the new Tupperware parties. ‘Influencers’ now go viral with makeup tutorials or ‘unboxing videos’ where they open new items to audiences of millions. To their followers these are not just salespeople, but friends. They may not know it, but they have Wise to thank for the insight that there is a lucrative network of female consumers eager for credible product recommendations. Capitalist feminism is alive and well.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Henry Oliver is a writer. His work can be found at commonreader.substack.com.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.