The Burp that Changed America

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Since Berlin native Earl Silas Tupper’s products are being utilized today more than any other day – lots of Thanksgiving leftovers, y’know – it seems only appropriate that those of us who call New Hampshire home should offer him a posthumous salute.

All together now:

Uuuurrrrpp!

OK, a collective belch may seem crude but it’s appropriate, since Earl’s most famous invention – the airtight plastic food containers that became the scientific and sociological miracle known as Tupperware – made burping acceptable, even de rigeur, in kitchens across America.

earl-tupper


Surely you are familiar with the “Tupperware Burp.”

That’s what happened when, “via simple hand manipulation,” fashionable ’50s-era home makers, dealing with that phenomenon known as leftovers, would expel air from their Tupperware storage containers, thereby assuring that they would “put more nourishment into their families and less into thin air.”

It pains me to report that wimpy marketers eventually phased out the “Tupperware Burp” in favor of the more genteel “Tupperware Whisper,” but by any other name, it was a by-product of Tupperware’s exceptional sealing properties.

And speaking of by-products, Tupperware itself was the by-product of an oil refining process that produced an ugly, malodorous, black polyethylene slag.

Earl Tupper turned that slag into something sublime.

My words lack a certain poetry, so let me turn to “Tupperware : The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America” authored by Alison J. Clarke, who noted for posterity that:

“The first snow-white, featherweight Tupperware item, according to corporate accounts, came from a lump of black, recalcitrant chemical waste product referred to as ‘slag.’ Through an act of genius and alchemy, Earl Tupper summoned forth a divine creation to benefit humanity. ‘He looked deep into the material,’ declared a promotional film, ‘and found Tupperware .'”

We must find our way to Berlin.

That’s where Earl Silas Tupper was born in 1907.

His parents, Ernest and Lulu Tupper, owned a small farm there, and at an early age, Earl demonstrated the moxie of a precocious salesman when, rather than waiting for customers to stop by the family farm stand, he boosted the family income “by selling poultry and produce door-to-door.”

His inventiveness was also on display when he earned a patent for a machine that made it easier to clean and dress chickens for sale.

I wish I could report that his genius continued to blossom here in New Hampshire, but I cannot. By the time Earl was 10, the Tuppers had moved from Berlin to central Massachusetts. The family owned a greenhouse, which prompted Earl – after being graduated from Fitchburg High in 1925 – to pursue a career as a tree surgeon.

Tupper Tree Doctors went under during the Depression.

Ear ‘s dreams, however, continued to bubble to the surface.

In 1936, he landed a job with a DuPont Plastics subsidiary called Viscoloid in Leominster, Mass., which proved to be the perfect marriage of means and opportunity. Although he was asked to make sample plastic products, he was also given free access to waste materials – slag – which he used in his own experiments.

Some went awry.

For reasons that escape me, American women were underwhelmed by Earl’s notion of a plastic, girdle-like contraption called “Corset with Cross Muscles.” And his “Egyptian Slave Dancing Girl Waist Ring” – which mirrored “old Egyptian Slave dancing girl rings that were put on to restrict fatness” – didn’t fly either.

Like most great inventors, Earl persisted.

Finally, in 1942, he came up with a “flexible, injection-molded polyethylene bell-shaped container.” He trumped himself when he won a patent for his “Tupper Seal” airtight lid and by 1949, all of America – well, most of it – had taken notice.

Aesthetically, Tupperware was a smash.

“House Beautiful” magazine offered up a lavish photo layout under the headline, “Fine Art for 39 Cents.” The Museum of Modern Art in New York included a number of Tupperware containers in an exhibit on “outstanding 20th century design.”

Commercially, things weren’t so hot.

brownie-wise


Using traditional retail outlets, Tupperware consistently failed to gain the kind of foothold with the America public that Earl had envisioned, and so, when he noticed that a divorced mother from Florida was selling huge quantities of Tupperware during something she called “patio parties,” he invited Brownie Wise to Massachusetts.

She came as a V.I.P.

When she left, she was the V.P. of Tupperware Inc.

It was an amazing meeting of divergent minds.

On the one hand, you had the reclusive, secretive inventor who painted his factory floors white so he could more easily detect dirt. On the other, the flamboyant, gregarious, daughter of a union organizer who could sell ice cubes to Eskimos.

It couldn’t last.

It didn’t.

But, in the eight years they worked together, Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise took a simple-if-revolutionary household product and – more than 50 years after the fact – made it a must-have fixture in every household in America.

It’s a classic American story, and it all started here.

For more on the story, tune in to this YouTube video:

And now, in honor of Earl Tupper, repeat after me:

Uuuurrrrpp!


John Clayton

 

John Clayton is Executive Director of the Manchester Historic Association. You can reach him with your historical (or existential) questions at jclayton@manchesterhistoric.org.


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