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Tupperware once changed women's lives. Now it struggles to survive

Tupperware is now selling some products at Target, but it still makes most of its money through individual sellers.
Scott Olson
/
Getty Images
Tupperware is now selling some products at Target, but it still makes most of its money through individual sellers.

Stacey Sottung shows off a stack of colorful bowls in an Instagram video, filming for her followers a taste of the modern Tupperware party, which in addition to bowls and vintage tumblers, may include cake pans that go in the microwave, cold-brew carafes or vegetable choppers.

To this day, individual dealers like Sottung are how Tupperware makes most of its money. Many sell on Facebook or at virtual parties; Sottung has been trying out TikTok. But fundamentally, the brand's business harkens back to its 1940s roots: women selling to women, ideally in someone's living room.

"Tupperware is best when it's shown, when you can touch it, when you can feel it," says Sottung, who began selling as the Philly Tupperware Lady during the pandemic. "When I have the ability to go to a house and do a house party, I just love, love, love it."

Tupperware once revolutionized women's roles — in the kitchen and the country's economy — and sealed its place in American lore as a synonym for kitchen storage. It popularized party-style sales. Its plasticware is in museums. But now, the company faces financial peril.

Women attend a Tupperware Party in someone's back garden in 1955.
/ Archive Photos/Getty Images
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Archive Photos/Getty Images
Women attend a Tupperware Party in someone's back garden in 1955.

Decline happened slowly over a decade. Fewer people joined the sales force. Sales stagnated, then slid. Tupperware's value is now less than a tenth the size of its debt. Since April, the company has been warning of a possible pending bankruptcy. It has now missed deadlines for at least two financial reports.

Turning homemakers into saleswomen

Fath Davis Ruffins puts on disposable gloves before opening a dream 1950s cabinet: Tupperware storage containers, little spears for finger foods, serveware and cutlery, in a rainbow of pastels. This collection in storage at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is proof of just how influential these products once were.

"We're in the forever business," Ruffins, a curator, explains the gloves.

Tupperware's design and historic impact landed it in museums worldwide, including these bowls at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
/ Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
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Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
Tupperware's design and historic impact landed it in museums worldwide, including these bowls at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

The forever business was certainly a goal for Tupperware, the brainchild of inventor Earl Tupper. After World War II, he created a softer durable plastic and patented a lid with a double seal, said to be inspired by the paint can.

But the invention needed a show-and-tell. Enter Brownie Wise, a single mother in Detroit, who convinced Tupper to sell at Tupperware parties and oversaw their runaway success. Tupperware ladies hustled to get a cut of each sale to friends or neighbors, or win grand prizes like Cadillacs and trips to Disney.

It was the perfect moment for the company: women had lost wartime jobs to men; a spike in divorces left many, like Wise, scrambling for income with few well-paying options; and of course, the baby boom arrived, leading to bigger families and housewives at home in the sprawling suburbs.

Tupperware, praised for its modern design, became "a kind of iconic example of home life and domesticity," Ruffins says. And Wise, in 1954, became the first woman on the cover of Business Week for enabling generations of homemakers to see themselves as saleswomen.

Brownie Wise, head of Tupperware Home Parties, receives a sales award in 1956.
Bill Chaplis / AP
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AP
Brownie Wise, head of Tupperware Home Parties, receives a sales award in 1956.

The name "Tupperware" transcends the company

Eventually, the sales gig spread from homes to the office. Secretaries and receptionists handed out sleek Tupperware catalogues. The company's products exploded across the world. Even Queen Elizabeth was said to keep cornflakes in a Tupperware.

After Tupper's patents expired in the 1980s, versions of his special lid spread far and wide. Soon, the company name outgrew the company.

In front of a display of classic Tupperware at the Smithsonian, a group of high school students say they weren't aware it was a brand.

"I thought it was just the regular name for, like, containers," says one of them. Another describes Tupperware they think they have at home: one square with a red lid and some with green lids — except they realize those are made by Rubbermaid and Glad.

The students conclude they'd never really seen actual Tupperware before.

The online shopping era brought more competition for Tupperware. But for years, the company also spent big on dividends for shareholders — and stuck with selling through individual consultants rather than stores, even as it discontinued the party-sales business in the United Kingdom in the early 2000s.

Pandemic boost proved brief

The company's growth has mostly come from overseas. As of 2020, Tupperware said, 3.2 million people sold its products worldwide, with nearly 600,000 of them reported as "active" sellers. Since then, the company has not updated the total number, while the "active" ranks have shrunk to 284,000. Nearly half are in South America.

Classic Tupperware bowls on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
/ Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
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Smithsonian's National Museum of American History
Classic Tupperware bowls on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

During the pandemic, when everyone cooked at home, Tupperware's profits suddenly quadrupled. Executives praised this as a sign of a turnaround.

The unexpected surge didn't last. Sales slipped again. The company soon said "the pandemic, inflation and high interest rates" were hurting its business. Its prices rose. Its debt weighed heavier.

In the fall, Tupperware finally made a long-term deal to sell on store shelves in the U.S., partnering with Target. It now also offers some vintage-inspired bowls and pitchers on Amazon. CEO Miguel Fernandez, who joined in 2020 from Avon and Herbalife, has said he wants Tupperware's business to get as big as the brand.

"People's lives — American lives — changed tremendously. So it's not surprising that today might be a different day for the Tupperware company," says museum curator Ruffins. "Many American companies do not last 75 or 80 years."

There's a saying that everyone dies twice: once with your last breath and again when your name is spoken for the last time. By that measure, Tupperware did crack the forever business — even if it goes out of business.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.