Papers documenting inventor Earl S. Tupper, his inventions, Tupperware and the Tupper Company.
Scope and Contents:
The collection documents the life of inventor Earl S. Tupper through correspondence, notes, photographs, drawings and sound recordings.
The collection is organized into five series.
Series 1: Personal Papers, 1910-1989
Series 2: Early Business Papers and Scientific Notes, 1930-1965
Series 3: Tupper Corporation/Tupperware Business, 1908-1983
Series 4: Neil Osterweill Oral Histories and Research Notes, 1926-1989
Subseries 4.1: Research Files, 1926-1989
Subseries 4.2: Original Masters, 1987-1989
Subseries 4.3:Research Copies, 1987-1989
Subseries 4.4:Research Copies, 1987-1989
Subseries 4.5: Preservation Copies, undated
Series 5: Center for Advertising History, Oral History Interviews, 1992
Subseries 5.1: Original Masters, 1992
Subseries 5.2: Research Copies, 1992
Subseries 5.3: Research Copies, 1992
Subseries 5.4: Preservation Copies, 1992
Subseries 5.5: Abstracts and Transcripts, 1992, 2003
Biographical / Historical:
Earl Silas Tupper was born in 1907, to a New Hampshire farming family of modest means. During his youth and boyhood in New England, his mother Lulu Clark Tupper, took in laundry and ran a boarding house, while his father, Earnest Leslie operated a small family farm. Earnest Tupper loved to tinker, developing labor-saving devices for the farm and family greenhouses; one of his devices, a frame to facilitate the cleaning of chickens, was granted a patent. It is from his father that Earl Tupper is said to have developed a love for invention. Even as a boy, Tupper showed an enterprising and entrepreneurial spirit. At the age of 10, Earl discovered he could move more of the family's produce by selling door-to-door, bringing the product directly to the customer.
After high school graduation in 1925, Tupper continued to work in the family greenhouses in Shirley Massachusetts for two years. Tupper was an ambitious young man, though, and he was determined to earn his first million by the time he was thirty. During the twenties, he set out on a number of different paths, including work as a mail clerk and on a railroad labor crew. In 1928, he took a course in tree surgery, with the idea of setting up his own tree surgery and landscaping business. He continued to help out with the family business, and got married in 1931. Through the early thirties, the landscaping and nursery business continued to grow and thrive, despite the Depression, enabling Tupper to pursue some of his ideas and inventions. His scientific notebooks for this period reflect the diversity of his interests. Even after Tupper Tree Doctors was forced into bankruptcy in 1936, Tupper remained optimistic about his ability to develop and manufacture some of his inventions.
In 1936, Tupper met Bernard Doyle, the inventor of Viscoloid, the plastics manufacturing division of DuPont, located in nearby Leominster, Mass. He went to work for DuPont in 1937, but stayed there only one year. Later, Tupper would say it was at Dupont "that my education really began." Tupper took the experience he had gained in plastics design and manufacturing at DuPont, and struck out on his own. In 1938, he formed the Earl S. Tupper Company, advertising the design and engineering of industrial plastics products in Leominster, Massachusetts. Much of the fledgling company's early work was performed under subcontract to DuPont. Business was good during the war, because despite the difficulty of acquiring the raw materials necessary for plastics production for the domestic market, Tupper Plastics was able to garner several defense contracts, molding parts for gas masks and Navy signal lamps.
After the war, Tupper turned his attention to developing plastics for the growing consumer market. Many of his earliest designs, which included plastic sandwich picks, cigarette cases, and an unbreakable tumbler for the bathroom, were offered as premiums with other products. For example, Tek toothbrushes offered the tumbler with purchase of a toothbrush, and cigarette companies and other businesses offered cigarette cases imprinted with their logo.
Plastics was still in its infancy in the forties, and the commercial market for plastics product was limited by plastic's reputation for being brittle, greasy, smelly and generally unreliable. Tupper's contributions were twofold. First, he developed a method for purifying black polyethylene slag, a waste product produced in oil refinement, into a substance that was flexible, tough, non-porous, non-greasy and translucent. Second, he developed the Tupper seal, an airtight, watertight lid modeled on the lid for paint containers. Together, these innovations laid the foundations for the future success of Tupperware. Nevertheless, marketing the new product presented a challenge. Tupper experimented with department store sales, but as Businessweek reported in 1954, "in retail stores it fell flat on its face." It seemed clear that the new lid required explanation or demonstration.
In the late 1940s, Thomas Damigella (in Massachusetts) and Brownie Wise (in Florida) were selling household products through Stanley Home Products. Purchasing through local plastics distributors, both began offering Tupperware as part of their product line, and were moving enough Tupperware to attract Earl Tupper's attention. In 1948, Tupper met with Damigella, Wise, and several other local distributors at a Sheraton in Worcester Massachusetts to discuss a new distribution plan. Modeled on the home party plan pioneered by Stanley Home Products and expanded and refined by Brownie Wise, the home party plan became and remains the exclusive outlet for Tupperware. Wise was named Vice President of the company (named Tupperware Home Parties) in 1951, a position she held until 1958, when Tupper sold the company to Rexall for $16 million.
Tupperware's success stems from the combined genius of Earl Tupper, the self-styled Yankee inventor and entrepreneur and Brownie Wise, the consummate saleswoman and motivator. If Tupper personified reverence for the product, Wise personified respect for the sales force. "If we build the people," she was fond of saying, "they'll build the business." Almost half a century later, their legacy remains an important part of Tupperware's continuing success.
Earl S. Tupper died on October 5, 1983.
Materials in the Archives Center
Leo Baekeland Papers (AC0005)
DuPont Nylon Collection (AC0007)
J. Harry DuBois Collection on the History of Plastics (AC0008)
Celluloid Corporation Records (AC0009)
Albany Billiard Ball Company Records (AC#0011)
Brownie Wise Papers (AC0509)
Ann and Thomas Damigella Collection (AC0583)
Materials at the National Museum of American History
Tupperware related artifacts are located in the Division of Home and Community Life (now Division of Cultural and Community Life), the Division of Medicine and Science and the Division of Work and Industry. See accessions: 1983.0711; 1984.1098; 1985.3014; 1985.3015; 1987.0180; 1990.3055; 1992.0209; 1992.0605; 1993.0257; 1994.0118; 1994.0124; 1995.0109; 1998.0070; 1998.0220; 2012.0133; and 2014.3077.
The materials were donated to the Archives Center in 1992 by Glenn O. Tupper, Earl Tupper's son.
Collection is open for research but master (preservation) tapes are stored off-site and special arrangements must be made to work with it. Contact the Archives Center for information at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-633-3270.
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.
No restrictions. All requests for duplication and use must be submitted in writing and approved by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Contact SIA Reference Staff for further information (email email@example.com)
Smithsonian Institution Archives
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