SHIRLEY — Most women of a certain age know what Tupperware is. More than a product, it’s a generational icon. The name conjures memories of mom’s kitchen.
Time was, if your mother didn’t sell the popular plastic product, invented in 1945 and widely used during the 1950s, she knew someone who did.
During the 1950s and 60s, the color-coordinated containers were ubiquitous, from fridge to table to shelf, keeping cakes, casseroles and picnic pickles fresh. Other storage options included arts and crafts materials, tiny toys and sewing supplies, and they even duty in dad’s workshop.
Featuring user-friendly shapes, art deco styles, famously spill-proof lids and a seemingly endless list of practical purposes, Tupperware is still sold today. Although its trademark pastel colors have changed with the times, it’s still a popular product.
This month marks the 100th birthday of company founder Earl Tupper, who died in 1983. He grew up in Shirley and contributed to the town’s history and that of the area plastics industry. Born in New Hampshire in 1907, Tupper moved to Shirley with his family in 1917. His sister, Gladys Cook, still lives in town.
Described in a Web site bio as “a farming family of modest means,” the Tuppers moved to Dunstable, then to West Groton and then to Shirley. Earl graduated from Fitchburg High School in 1925 and went on to study tree surgery and to launch his own firm, Tupper Tree Doctors.
An enterprising salesman as well as an inventor who once patented a chicken-cleaning device, Tupper sold produce door-to-door when he was only 10. While living in Shirley, he helped his family cultivate rented fields and grew corn, squash and pumpkins. He also helped build greenhouses for a family business on Hazen Road.
In 1936 Tupper went to work at Viscoloid Plastics in Leominster, a division of DuPont. In 1938 he founded the Earl S. Tupper Company in that city. Still evolving then, plastics products were brittle and greasy rather than clean and pliable. Tupper helped reform the fledgling industry’s image when he turned an oil refinery by-product known as polyethylene slag into a material that was flexible, tough, non-porous and translucent. Using this new and improved plastic, he developed an airtight, watertight lid for paint containers that laid the groundwork for Tupperware.
The Tupperware success story is about marketing, too. That’s where Brownie Wise comes in. Described as a self-styled Yankee inventor and entrepreneur, she was a crack salesperson and motivator who caught Tupper’s eye while working for Stanley Home Products in Florida. She and a Massachusetts-based Stanley salesman purchased Tupperware to sell as part of their line and it was moving fast. In 1948, Tupper met with Wise and other local distributors to talk about a new distribution plan based on the “home party” model Stanley used to market its products. Wise expanded and refined it. She was vice president of Tupperware Home Parties from 1951 to 1958, when Tupper sold the company and moved to an island he’d purchased in Costa Rica.
Tupper donated the seed money for the Historical Society to build the Lucy Longley Memorial Building on Center Road that also serves as the group’s headquarters. The project, which took two years and many volunteer hours to complete, opened in 1981.
It’s only fitting, then, to mark Tupper’s centennial birthday party there. And, of course, it’s a Tupperware party, with part of the sales proceeds to benefit the Historical Society. Admission is free.
Folks who want to come in 1950s garb are encouraged to do so. The event takes place at the Historical Society Museum Saturday, July 14 at 7 p.m. and will include a modern, 21st century presentation by Tupperware salesperson Diane Bliss.
Refreshments will be served.