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TV Review: New documentary keeps Tupperware fresh for viewers

Sunday, February 08, 2004

By Elizabeth Hoover

Surprisingly, there's plenty of drama in a Tupperware home party, as Laurie Kahn-Leavitt's new film on PBS shows. "The American Experience: Tupperware!" is an engaging documentary that tells the story of Brownie Wise, a single mother in Detroit who was struggling to make ends meet when she started her own business in 1947, selling Tupperware at parties.

 
 
"The American Experience: Tupperware!"
When: 9 p.m. tomorrow on WQED
Narrator: Kathy Bates


Related article:

Filmmaker flipped her lid over Tupperware

   
 

Angered that her shipment was late one day, she called Tupperware and demanded to speak to the owner. When Earl Silas Tupper, the inventor of "bowls that burp" got on the phone, she laid out her marketing strategy and he was hooked. He pulled his products from department stores and decided to rely solely on party sales.

With white gloves, impeccable manners and a show-stopping wardrobe, Wise built an empire selling Tupperware based on this premise:

Take women with time on their hands who, surrounded by the glut of products in the post-World War II boom, are eager for a little extra money, and turn them into perfect ladies while they sell to their own network of friends.

It worked. Tupper made millions and Wise was able to live, for a few years, in a sprawling Xanadu in Florida, basking in the adoration of her sales force. Her success put her on the cover of Business Week magazine in 1951, the first woman to appear there.

"She had a way of speaking to your dreams," Sylvia Boyd, a former Tupperware saleswoman, explains in one of the many interviews in the film.

What makes this documentary so fascinating is more than the story of Wise's rags-to-riches success; it is learning about the hopes and dreams of a generation of women.

In the dozen or so interviews of Tupperware salespeople, staff and their relatives, it was surprising to learn that the Tupperware family had regional and racial diversity.

Selling Tupperware made some of these women rich, and it also made women without high school diplomas and little recognition feel important, the filmmaker shows.

Anna Tate, who was a sales manager, can't hide her emotions as she talks about being made valedictorian of a selling seminar.

"I had to leave off the last sentence of my speech because I was going to cry," she remembers, tearing up even now. "It meant an awful lot to me and to thousands and thousands of women who were able to go out there and make a good living and they never thought it was going to turn out that way."

In addition to the oral histories, there is footage of some of the original Tupperware parties, educational videos and commercials, a treat to those who adore the 1950s aesthetic.

The best stuff comes from Wise's Jubilees -- meetings in Florida for her regional sales managers that were part pep rallies, part game shows and part cult ceremony.

Kahn-Leavitt uses choice footage of the sales force singing Tupperware songs, rushing pell-mell into a field to dig for prizes and dressing up as Eskimos for an Arctic-themed Jubilee.

As the saleswomen climbed up the Tupperware ladder, their husbands would often come with them, taking jobs as distributors. This led to the widespread phenomenon of the Tupperware husbands dressing in drag as Tupperware ladies for meetings. Bless Kahn-Leavitt for finding the footage.

But even Tupperware had a glass ceiling. Wise, with her sales force of women, had an all-male staff and Tupper was always the boss. He fired her over a bookkeeping dispute in 1958 and refused to give her severance until the staff asked him to cough up $35,000.

She struggled financially until her death in 1992. But the loyalty to the product she built was strong and the sales force remained. Today, every 2.5 seconds, somewhere in the world, a Tupperware party is held.


Pittsburgh native Elizabeth Hoover is an editorial assistant at American Heritage magazine, where she encountered the history of Tupperware.

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