Sunday, March 9, 2003
COLUMBUS, OHIO It may have been the most famous party of the last century.
The Tupperware party, introduced in 1948 and raised to a marketing art by a poor Detroit housewife in the 1950s, put the fun into food storage.
It promoted the usefulness of polyethlylene -- less breakable, tight sealing, odor-free. At the same time, the party helped push the "look" of Tupperware -- the simple lines and later, the bright colors -- until it became an art form almost in itself.
"Uncluttered" and "marvelously free of that vulgarity which characterizes so much household equipment," editors of a 1959 book on modern design wrote of Tupperware. Some of the containers were featured in a design exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1956.
A 2002 Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibit, "Vital Forms: American Art and Design in the Atomic Age," included Tupperware containers.
A current traveling exhibit, "From Turbines to Tupperware: Two Centuries of Industrial Drawings From the Smithsonian," features a Tupperware bowl design.
Now, a new exhibit, "Tupperware Party: Past, Present, Future," showcases the products and the party-holders over the past seven decades. The show runs through March 21 at the Columbus College of Art and Design.
Functional and efficient
"You're not going to go to a car lot and say, 'What's the ugliest thing you've got? I'll take one,"' said Scott Miller, a former Tupperware industrial designer.
The idea is to make things capable of being left out "without having them look foreign in your kitchen," Miller said. "You can put the cereal server out, and if you forget to put it away, you're not going to be embarrassed by the fact it's this ugly, bulbous, not-very-nice-looking thing. You can leave it out -- that's a plus."
The company has always focused on creating a product that's functional and efficient, "and yet at the same time aesthetically pleasing," said CCAD director of exhibitions Natalie Marsh, who curated the show.
The exhibit follows the plastic products from their introduction in the 1940s, when housewives needed to be instructed on how best to use the new locking plastic lids. The containers from that era are utilitarian but drab to our color-conscious eye -- tall, white cylinders, more laboratorylike than luxurious.
"It's the clean lines you see on it -- even the seal -- everything is so symmetrical," said Tom Damigella Jr., of Boston, owner of the last remaining original Tupperware distributorship. "That's what I love about it. There's nothing obtuse about it."
The simple, elegant design stayed true through the decades while the use of color expanded. The 1960s saw the beginning of light greens and yellows. The 1970s brought browns and dark greens to match changing tastes -- remember that avocado refrigerator?
The 1980s brought a profusion of reds, blues and purples.
'Material of the future'
Today, most Tupperware products involve the "organization" of food rather than simply the storage of it, Damigella said.
For example, Miller shows off a square container available to Korean consumers for making kimchee, the fermented cabbage considered the country's national dish. When the top of the container pops up, the fermentation is done.
Or take the company's "Rock 'n Serve," a freezer-to-microwave storage and cooking device, as well as a series of smooth, seamless purple plates and bowls that Miller designed.
"Those are the things I find particularly challenging," he said. "It seems like a very simple thing to design, but there are so many plates and so many bowls out there -- it's like, what do you do?"
The Orlando, Fla.-based company was founded by inventor Earl Tupper, a New Hampshire tree surgeon and farmer who struggled to earn a living for his family during the Depression. He invented Tupperware around 1942, using a refined version of the compound polyethlylene, which he referred to as "Poly-T: Material of the Future," according to British design professor Alison Clarke in her book, "Tupperware: the Promise of Plastic in 1950s America."
Tupperware sales took off in the 1950s when Brownie Wise, a poor Detroit single mother started holding Tupperware parties instead of selling door-to-door. "By the mid-1950s, the Tupperware party ... had become a cultural hallmark of postwar America," Clarke wrote.
Tupperware has experimented with retail sales, including a limited line available in Target stores. But even those products are generally accompanied by an in-store Tupperware saleswoman ready to explain the product and take your name for a party down the road.
The party has changed over the years, with more emphasis today on combining a "ladies night out" with tips on cooking and food preparation, said David Halversen, Tupperware's senior vice president for business development and communications.
And while the sales force tends to buy products direct from the company today instead of through regional distributorships, the plastic-pushing party remains the core of Tupperware's corporate strategy.
"A Tupperware party is held every two seconds around the world," Halversen said. "That's how important the Tupperware party is to us."