The story of Earl Tupper’s fantastic plastics

Tupperware – A postcard from the 1950s advertises a variety of Tupperware products. Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC

When “American Horror Story,” the Museum of Modern Art and “Napoleon Dynamite” pay homage to an invention, you know it’s made a cultural impact in a big way.

Tupperware has a staying power that most plastic products don’t. So far, it has evaded the anti-plastics movement, and it seems to survive most kitchen clean-outs. Its annual sales exceed US$2 billion.

I’ve taught the story of Tupperware products in a course on the American 1950s. I’m also teaching it in the polymers unit of an interdisciplinary course in materials science engineering.

Tupperware products’ ability to bridge the humanities and STEM fields speaks to their cultural and utilitarian value – evidence of how a compelling, innovative design can have mass appeal.

Polyethylene – ‘Material of the Future’
Our relationships with plastics can be as richly diverse as the shapes and colors these malleable materials can assume.

Technically speaking, plastics are pliable, ductile and flexible synthetic materials that are easily shaped through heat and other applications of force. The word “plastic” also has an aesthetic meaning: A plastic actor is more versatile before the camera, and a medium such as stone can become plastic in an artist’s hands.

Literary and cultural critic Roland Barthes saw modern plastics as a form of alchemy – a way to transmute matter in seemingly infinite ways.

“More than a substance,” he wrote in “Mythologies,” “plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation.”

Barthes imagined polystyrene, polyvinyl and polyethylene as Greek shepherds in a world of gods and monsters – magical materials alive with possibility.

Earl Tupper, the inventor of Tupperware products, saw such promise in polyethylene – the plastic he used to craft his inventions – that he called it “Poly-T: Material of the Future,” as Alison J. Clarke notes in her book “Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America.”

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