Bento Boxes and Kimono Keepers in Japan. Tortilla Keepers for Latin America. The Kimchi Keeper in Korea. And the Storzalots(TM) box for Americans. It's all from the company that frowns upon Internet sales -- and won't sell through stores. But does it ever vend at parties -- affairs known as the Stop 'n' Shop, the Rush Hour Party, the Custom Kitchen Planning Party, and the Microwave Cooking Class.Who's behind such madness? None other than Tupperware(R). And after all these years, the plastic empire started by Earl Tupper in 1946 still merchandises Micromugs and Stor-N-Shakes(TM) like nobody else.Tupperware is an American institution that has gotten its plastic goods into more than 90 percent of American households over the decades. Pushing the phrase "miracle plastics" to the extreme, each tumbler and snack bowl is designed and manufactured to perform for a lifetime. It's unbreakable, air tight, and odor-resistant -- even after a chunk of Limburger.And like most success stories, the plastic empire started innocently enough. Plastic once had little use in the kitchen because it wasn't heat resistant. Celluloid -- discovered in the 19th century -- was the first plastic material to hobnob with cooks as handles for flatware. But there was a problem: Get one of those handles near fire and you were serving flambe, whether it was on the menu or not. The resin was highly inflammable.But then, early in the 20th century, phenolic plastics, known as Bakelite(R), were molded at high temperatures for heat resistance. And then it was discovered that cold-molded plastics were even more resilient. One type -- cellulose acetate -- became extremely popular in the '30s.Earl Tupper was eager to experiment with plastics, but he couldn't get access to "critical materials" restricted for war research. A self-styled "inventor" from humble origins in Berlin, N.H., Tupper was armed with only a high school diploma when he decided to work at DuPont for a year.He formed his own company in 1938, and asked his former Dupont bosses to sell him some leftover material to experiment with. But what he got was a smelly chunk of polyethylene, a waste product of the oil refining process. And not only did it stink, it was rock hard and impossible to work with. But Tupper developed a refining process to purify the putrid matter into something quite different. It was clear instead of black, flexible but unbreakable, tasteless, odorless, non-toxic, lightweight, and easy-to-clean.The slag had turned to gold.The future salad-bowl-wizard then developed an injection molding machine to shape the new material, and won defense contracts during World War II molding parts for gas masks and Navy signal lamps. After the war, Tupper began making his own line of polyethylene products to capitalize on its magical properties.Dishes by DesignForm followed function, and the new material was earmarked for its ideal purpose: food storage. But not just food storage. It was meant to be as Architecture Digest as a lasagna container could get.And it hit its goal. The first products in the '40s were marketed as the "Millionaire Line of Poly-T." House Beautiful deemed the dishes "fine art for 39 cents." And several art museums and industrial design collections still include Tupperware among their treasures. The National History Museum of the Smithsonian Institute observes that the Tupperware(R) products in its collection "reflect elements of scientific ingenuity and entrepreneurialism, and offer an interesting example of the adaptation of defense technologies."And you thought it was a butter dish.Next, there was the second phase of product development. It was the famous Tupperware seal, and it created quite a stir -- not to mention an airtight, partial vacuum. The design discovery simply reversed the pattern of a paint can lid. The Tupperware seal could be made small enough for pour spouts and large enough for mixing and serving bowls. When the storage containers would drop, they would gleefully bounce high like baby kangaroos in the Outback. Nothing would break, and none of the ingredients would spill out. The containers would keep food fresh, as well as save money on a family's grocery budget.Yet ironically, when Tupperware containers with the Tupperware seal were first introduced, they languished on store shelves. Consumers weren't used to plastic dishes, and they couldn't even make the seal work. Tupperware bombed in retail stores.In stepped the party plan.Tupperware's successful use of the party plan actually began with another company. The concept is thought to be derived from aluminum dinner parties in the '20s that were arranged to demonstrate how aluminum servingware and cookware could add pizzazz to your next dinner party. Stanley Home Products later developed a version of the home party plan that featured product demonstrations as we know them today. Tupperware, of course, picked up from there.Tupper WomanBut it took someone to make the party -- and the platters -- jibe. In the '40s, a Detroit woman named Brownie Wise was given a set of the new Tupperware by a friend. And what she did for Tupperware -- and vice-versa -- is one of those tabloid success stories."She walked slowly, fearfully down the hospital steps," a profile in the August 1954 Woman's Home Companion began ominously. "Her small son was seriously ill; treatments would cost $5,000. She was husbandless, with only her salary as a secretary to live on. Her house was already mortgaged. Where would the money come from?"Wise and her mother were already selling Stanley Home Products, West Bend(R) appliances, and other household goods through Brownie's version of the party plan. And when she finally figured out how the Tupperware seal worked, Wise quickly added the Tupperware line to her product mix.Before long, business was so successful that in 1949 Wise was able to move with her son and mother to Miami for her son's health.Wise went on from there to meet with Earl Tupper. She was designated vice president and general manager of the company. Since Tupper himself generally avoided the limelight, she also became internally and publicly recognized as the inspirational leader of the Tupperware sales organization. Her charge was to build a successful marketing, recruiting, training, and selling system for Tupperware. Her classic creed became: "If we build the people, they'll build the business."In the milestone year of 1958, Brownie Wise left Tupperware, and Earl Tupper later sold the enterprise to the Rexall Drug Company. But the plastic-plate bug had bitten the world, and Tupperware continued to expand.Tupperware TodayAnd more than 50 years later, Tupperware hasn't gone the way of Pet Rocks. It is a thriving company -- even though it only vaguely resembles it's day-glo genesis. Today, the sun never sets on Tupperware, with a demonstration beginning somewhere on average every two-and-a-half seconds. Last year, some 97 million people attended a Tupperware party or demonstration. The independent sales force has grown to nearly 800,000 in 101 countries around the world -- and it's still expanding. Worldwide net sales in 1996 were more than $1.4 billion.But today, I collect Tupperware from decades past. I find these crayon-colored housewares in huge dusty bins in thrift-store back rooms for as little as a dime a piece. The chunky orange, avacado, and lemon-yellow cups and plates are still almost perfect. And I can imagine the toylike bowls in someone's chrome-detailed '50s refrigerator long ago.But my collection is quite a contrast to today's Tupperware. Now it's almost futuristic -- pitchers and platters based on rocket science.Thumb through the slick 1997 Tupperware Fall/Holiday catalog and you'll find the Rock 'N Serve(TM) line -- products that are virtually unbreakable and unstainable because they're made from Lexan(R) polycarbonate, the same material used to make bullet-resistant windows and canopies for F16 fighter jets.Then there's the Ultra-Fresh(TM) line of containers, with the Ultra-Fresh(TM) grid that was supposedly proven in some university study to prevent "premature curling, wilting, and drying."Of what, I wonder.The Pick-A-Deli(R) includes a lift-up strainer that grants you the luxury of selecting a pickle stored in liquid without -- I hate when this happens! -- getting your hand wet.There are double-sided spatulas with ergonomic handles, mixing bowls with loops for your thumbs, colanders with covers that invert to become pot strainers, salad-dressing containers with removable blending inserts, a citrus peeler that conveniently ricochets into a potato-eye remover, and a sandwich spreader made extra-long to scrape the bowels of any Skippy(R) jar.But wait. There are freezer containers with tiny feet to allow freezer-air circulation, microwave dishes with pop-up vents, tumblers with air-tight lids so that you can transport that daiquiri anywhere, notched spoons that remain on the edges of bowls in case the phone rings during the crucial stage of a Tollhouse(R) batch, and salt-and-pepper shakers with self-cleaning prongs.And just before your pantry comes alive and Julie Andrews breaks into a chorus of "A Spoonful of Sugar," remember that EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY because the Crisp-it(R) is now redesigned to actually hold today's genetically mutated gargantuan iceberg lettuce heads.But what happened to the colors?Those familiar shag-carpet hues of the '60s are long gone. Now Tupperware is available in "Island Green," "Ocean Blue," "Bold 'N Blue," "Sapphire," "Emerald," "Amethyst," and black and white. No orange in sight.Dinner in DragThe traditional Tupperware saleswoman has undergone an even more shocking metamorphosis. An article in the July 1, 1996 issue of U. S. News and World Report describes how a certain Pam Teflon is sending Tupperware sales through the cross-dressing, performance-art roof.Pam is the homemaking persona created and presented by 30-something Jeff Sumner, a formerly starving Los Angeles writer and actor. He became the platinum-haired '50s housewife after attending a Tupperware party. With a mythical house in Moline, Ill., and a make-believe husband and two teens, Teflon needs to keep leftovers fresh. Somebody else must, too, because Teflon is booked five nights a week -- and months in advance -- for Tupperware parties. It seems that Hollywood's gay community can't get enough of her -- of course heterosexuals like her, too.At a "Pam Party," Teflon boogies through her 45-minute act -- including a lip sync of The Little Mermaid theme -- using the award-winning Double Colander's lid as an oar and mirror. The result? She moves thousands of bucks of Sipper Seal Sets, Thatsa Bowls, and other plastic. Most consultants sell $300 per party and make $10 to $15 an hour. But Pam Teflon, as a Tupperware executive manager who gets a 35-percent cut, leaves with about $700 for two hours of Pamomime.Which brings us to those petroleum-product pricetags. It all may be an unbreakable, color-coordinated, stackable, reheatable, servable world -- but it ain't cheap. To get your hands on this miracle plastic, expect to fork out $15 for a large Modular Mates(R) Super Oval, $6 for the Cookie Lifter, and $23 for a RemarkaBowl(TM).If you can do without Freezer Mates(R), the Cake Taker, the Spaghetti Dispenser, and Tuppertoys(R), there is always one option: vintage Tupperware. The colors are retro. The price is cheap.Resources* At the Tupperware web site -- if you get past the scary photo of women at a Tupperware party -- you'll learn where the Tupperware distributors are in your state, where to attend a Tupperware demonstration, and how to sell Tupperware! After all, as a hostess, you can earn free Tupperware products like Modular Mates(R) sets or Double Colander. http://www.tupperware. com/howto/index.html* If you would like to host a demonstration (that's a "Tupperware party") and earn free Tupperware products, call your local consultant, check your telephone White Pages under Tupperware, or call toll free in the U.S. at 1-800-858-7221. If you actually do it, you better let us know.


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