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Utterly ubiquitous and deeply embedded within social networks, Tupperware emerged as an object of desire to shape the field of kitchen consumption
Nowhere are the contradictions of consumer culture, the endless clash of utility and fashion, more obvious than in the design culture of the kitchen. The pared-back simplicity of bespoke Shaker cabinets, so beloved of the noughties, is routinely ripped out in less than a decade to be replaced by lush marble, brass fittings and moody dark hues. Awash with choice, as consumers we are constantly caught between the myth of self-realisation and the reality that our style ‘choices’ are inextricably bound to the social and political relations in which we are embedded. As couples, friends and families wander around IKEA’s model kitchen department, physically and virtually inhabiting styles (asking themselves ‘are we minimalist, are we rustic, are we Scandi?’) they are testing and rehearsing the values that bind them to their social group or, conversely, liberate them from the constraints of those ties.
In the early 1960s, the once convivial open?plan kitchen emerged as a fraught battleground for the cultural politics of domesticity. Betty Friedan, in her foundational work The Feminine Mystique (1963), singled out architects and interior decorators as the unwitting harbingers of a retrograde mode of domesticity: one that disguised women’s arduous labour and patriarchal oppression through the incorporation of soft features such as ‘mosaic murals’ and ‘original paintings’, forcing the kitchen ‘once again [into the] centre of women’s lives’. The Hidden Persuaders (1957), an exposé of the ‘murky’ world of advertising written by the arch-American consumer critic Vance Packard, similarly condemned the kitchen (and the women who laboured in it), lending the critique a decidedly misogynistic edge that would dominate the century’s depiction of the passive housewife trope: ‘Happily for the merchandiser, Mrs Middle Majority is simply delighted by many of the products geared to the American housewife, particularly products and appliances for the kitchen, which is the centre of her world.’
Nowhere was this trope of the all-consuming housewife, immersed in the bonanza of colourful gadgets and decorative schemes, more keenly observed than within the phenomenon of the ‘Tupperware party’ and the technics of the Tupperware object itself (the lid of the plastic Wonder Bowl, the marketing rhetoric instructed, had to be ‘burped’ like a baby to make it airtight). A triumph of fashion and social salience, Tupperware revealed just how little modernist utility mattered in the late 20th-century home. After inventor Earl Tupper’s machine-moulded form (dubbed Poly-T: Material of the Future) failed to sell as a simple utilitarian container in the late 1940s, a charismatic door-to-door saleswoman named Brownie Wise created the Tupperware party, imbuing the product with deep anthropological significance; she recognised that the product’s success revolved around its ability to embed itself in the intimate social networks of women who craved a life beyond the drudgery of domestic labour. The first woman to appear on the front cover of Business Week in 1956, she oversaw the product’s evolution into a fetish, satisfying the hopes of postwar consumer abundance; the range of pastel plastic airtight containers carried the aesthetics of the newly aspirational kitchen outwards into expanding neighbourly and familial networks. Women, using their own homes to elaborate product demonstrations, were recruited to act as hostesses, encouraging Tupperware party guests to appreciate the sensuality of the revolutionary storage system.
With the postwar advent of chemical innovations, commodities and their representation in print and broadcast media propelled the material world into a frenzy of colourway possibilities. In tandem with this growth in artificial colouring, the burgeoning fashion forecasting industry unleashed a new breed of forecasters directing manufacturers and consumers in a consensus around the latest ‘must-have’ colour for kitchens and their products. Nowhere was this orgiastic celebration of chromophilia more apparent than in the flourishing and expanding universe of plastics. The home magazine House Beautiful hailed the arrival of Tupperware under the heading ‘Fine Art for 39 Cents’, praising its shimmering translucent forms and comparing its material qualities to the iridescence of alabaster and mother-of-pearl. As the product and party spread further across the United States, the polyethylene range was redesigned in an array of evocative pastels; products such as the ‘TV Tumbler’ were made in hues inspired by sherbet sodas and the native orchids of Florida, and was compared to Christian Dior’s 1947 ‘New Look’. The kitchen had taken on a whole new significance as an object of fashion.
Unanchored from the traditional lifestyles of the previous generation, whose kitchens were filled with chinaware and fine napery, the gay colours of Tupperware reconfigured the essence of what it meant to be contemporary; advertisements celebrated the modernity of impromptu barbecues, finger buffets and casual dining. Tupperware sketched out a Technicolor world, in which housework was transformed into leisure, and kitchens became zones of sensual pleasure rather than servitude. This glamourisation of domesticity as a form of entrapment was precisely what Friedan identified in addressing ‘The Problem With No Name’, exposing the isolation and monotony of women’s household labour, dressed up by advertisers as a meaningful lifelong pursuit: ‘Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – “Is this all?”’
On the surface Tupperware’s adoption of women’s social networks (as hostesses and demonstrators they were ostensibly selling to their own friends and relations) seemingly encapsulated the alienation and claustrophobia Freidan and later feminists described as defining suburbia and the detrimental rise of consumer culture. Yet the corporation’s advertising repertoire of cheerful, middle-class white families belied the fact that many of the Tupperware consumers, and party-plan hostesses themselves, came from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds entirely at odds with the marketing depictions of affluent housewives and the kitchens they preened. Far from being simply a new stylistic expression, the rhetoric of the mid-century modernist design that Tupperware embodied, according to some historians, underwrote a broader discourse of white superiority and distinctiveness that didn’t just colonise the kitchens of non-white cultures, it eradicated cultural difference with its homogenising force.
‘The range carried the aesthetics of the aspirational kitchen outwards into expanding neighbourly and familial networks’
Beyond the advertising clichés, the Tupperware phenomenon was driven largely by divorcees, single mothers and women from African American, Polish, Jewish, Hispanic and Latin communities to the extent that, by the 1970s, the left-wing academic journal Radical America posited Tupperware parties as an arena for political consciousness-raising outside the white, elite enclaves of university campuses. As a weapon against the ‘system’, African American community activists from a feminist group Big Sisters even advocated selling goods such as Tupperware on the party-plan system as a flexible self-determined route into entrepreneurial and social empowerment. This drew on a model set by the 19th-century Black American entrepreneur and political activist, Madam CJ Walker, who famously made her own fortune selling hair products to African American women through one of the earliest iterations of the party sales system (predating Tupperware by decades).
By 1968, sales of Tupperware boomed globally, building on the shifting meanings of the kitchen from Chile to Japan, and expanded exponentially across Europe. Drawing away from the previous decade’s soft hues, the 1960s designs used solid contrasting tones; with a colourway of burnished orange, vermilion, rich earth brown, and lime green, Tupperware signalled a sharper, unisex, youthful modernity. But the unprecedented success of the product in its expanded market coincided with social and countercultural unrest. The Paris student riots of 1968 and related uprisings marked the birth of a revolution, not just in social ideals, but in an existential relationship to ‘things’. The postwar optimism of a society geared towards social democracy through material abundance, which Tupperware and its luminous pastels had exemplified, was now associated with stultifying bourgeois complacency; an emblem of ‘false-consciousness’, the aspirational American kitchen signified all that was awry with a consumer-saturated society. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s treatise The System of Objects (1968) epitomised this critique, offering the new generation a critical interpretation of their forebears’ insatiable appetite for consumption. Baudrillard’s writing vilified a late-capitalist consumer culture whose hyper-abstraction of signs and signifiers had stripped meaning from ‘concrete symbols’, leaving behind the last pretence of a capitalist commodity economy as having any utilitarian value. Previous generations had read ‘stuff’ as a blueprint
of social structure, in which the ‘arrangement of furniture’, Baudrillard declared, might stand as ‘a faithful image of the familial and social structures’ of a period. By contrast, the emergence of a mediated ‘system of objects’, in which ‘real’ stuff was rendered redundant, created a qualitatively different, dislocated relationship between people and ‘things’ in the new information-led, advertising?filled, society.
If the French intellectuals took a theoretical stance on the insidious spread of commodity culture into the heart of the home, the 1968 launch of the famed counterculture bible The Whole Earth Catalog, overseen by Stewart Brand, dismantled the kitchen altogether: liberating liberal Americans from the bourgeois tyranny of domesticity with ideas for anti?commodity communal living and multifunctional kitchen tools that sought to undermine the capitalist infringement on individuals’ social worlds.
Transmutable, ubiquitous and in full embrace of colour, Tupperware exemplified the type of ‘Americanised’ consumer culture Baudrillard, Brand and their contemporaries were pitted against. The chameleon-like colour change of these plastic containers, dislocated from vernacular traditions of making and born of capitalism, stood as a metaphor for the vapidity of the consumer world in which they circulated. The kitchen, rather than being the heart of an authentic social life, was held up by critical theorists as the space most engulfed by the artifice of burgeoning commerciality, with women as the willing dupes.
In a twist of irony, the earliest (and as-yet unsuccessful) iteration of Earl Tupper’s prototype was a perfect vision of a Puritan object; white, pure of form, and utterly utilitarian, it had more in common with the late 1960s neo-Marxist ideal than the nuanced design object that would come to define decades of kitchen culture. Yet the negotiation of style was not, and never has been, a superficial practice. Tupper’s stark object of utility and the notion of pure function failed to recognise the integral relationship we have as individuals and social beings with objects and styles in the making of our worlds. Despite the backlash from cynical French theorists, it was clear that the kitchen and its objects of desire had shifted from a place of utility to a space of meaning-making: a locus for negotiating fraught and contradictory relations.
Lead image: First conceived as a white, purely utilitarian object by Earl Tupper, the Tupperware range climbed to success through a variety of pastel-shaded plastics that shed the fusty frills and curlicues of earlier object fashions for an aesthetic language that promised the modern kitchen would be far more fun
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