The 1950s were heady times in the world of plastics technologies. Plastics were part of a new wave of futuristic technologies that were predicted to change the world. At a time when flying cars and personal robots seemed just around the corner, its no surprise that the atmosphere was right for the introduction of new, plastics-based conveniences to everyday life.
Although sci-fi dreams of flying cars still haven’t come to pass, more mundane aspects of the 1950s plastics revolution are still with us today. In this post, we’ll consider the history of one of the most famous and long-lived plastic products to come out of the 1950s – Tupperware.
As detailed in “Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America”, a 2001 book by Alison J. Clarke, the story of Tupperware is one of innovation, business acumen, and incredible economic success.
Tupperware was developed in the late 1940s by Earl Tupper, a businessman associated with DuPont. After failing to succeed as a tree surgeon, Tupper found a job making product samples for DuPont. Part of the company’s strategy at the time was to provide associates with raw materials and encourage experimentation and innovation both at work and at home.
Tupper foresaw that polyethylene would become an important plastic material; he even called it “Poly-T: Material of the Future”, as reported in this blog post by English professor Marsha Bryant. Knowing that the future had to start somewhere, he set to work trying to develop an innovative new food storage product.
First, Tupper tried to make his containers using DuPont’s injection moulding machines. When this failed, he turned to the waste materials DuPont made freely available to innovators associated with the company. Working with his son, Tupper used a stovetop and ordinary kitchen tools to develop a new form of polystyrene.
The biggest challenge was getting the lid to work. At a time when most people used aluminium foil or shower caps to cover leftover food, Tupper knew that having a tight fitting lid was key if the invention was to succeed.
After several more months of experimentation, he came up with a tight-fitting lid (check out the original patent text here) that could be attached by pressure alone, rather than depending on clasps or other attachment devices. Modern Tupperware was born!
Thanks to the incredible characteristics of plastics and a new direct sales business model, Tupperware was soon gracing the kitchens of people around the world. Today, Tupperware Brands has annual revenues of over $2.3 billion USD!