Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Tupper the tinkerer

Earl Silas Tupper, an American tinkerer, businessman and inventor, best known for Tupperware, was born 110 years ago today. For a few years when a young man he kept a daily diary, extracts of which can be found in The Tinkerer’s Story by Kathleen Franz. The diary shows him energetic, full of ambition to be an inventor, to make money, and, above all, to own a car!

Tupper was born on 28 July 1907 on a farm in Berlin, New Hampshire. His father looked after the family farm and greenhouse, while his mother took in laundry and ran a boarding house. As a boy, Earl learned he could sell more of his father’s produce by going door-to-door than he could in the market. After finishing at high school, he continued working for his parents, who now owned a nursery in Shirley, Massachusetts, until he was 19. He found employment on the railways and as a mail clerk before studying tree surgery. He started up his own tree and landscaping business - Tupper Tree Doctors Company - and began inventing items such as a women’s corset, a special hairpin dubbed Sure-stay, and a portable tie rack. In 1931, he married Marie Whitcomb and they would have five children.

During the Depression, Tupper’s business went bankrupt, but having met Bernard Doyle he went to work for his plastic company in Leominster, Massachusetts, part of the larger company, DuPont. A year later, he left and started The Earl S. Tupper Company, designing and developing plastic industrial products. During the war years, he mostly worked under contract for DuPont, producing moulded parts for the navy. It was from DuPont that he acquired a black, hard, polyethylene slag, a waste product of the oil process, and eventually found a way of refining it into a translucent, flexible, lightweight, non-toxic plastic which he called Poly-T. After the war, he turned his attention to the consumer market, making items such as plastic tumblers and cigarette cases; his Tupper Seal invention allowed an air- and water-tight lid. But selling plastic products - even in his Fifth Avenue shop - remained an uphill task.

In the late 1940s, Tupper joined forces with two distributors of his products - Brownie Wise (in Florida ) and Thomas Damigella (in Massachusetts) - who began to shift high volumes. The three met in 1951 and developed a new sales model called the Tupperware Home Party Plan with exclusive rights for selling Tupperware products (which were withdrawn from sale in shops). The plan was modelled on a home party plan pioneered by Stanley Home Products, but expanded and refined by Wise. Damigella and his wife became the first such distributors of Tupperware; and Wise was named vice president of Tupperware Home Parties in 1951. In 1958, Tupper fell out with Wise, who was dismissed, and then sold his company to Rexall Drug Company for $16m, divorced his wife, gave up U.S. citizenship (to avoid tax) and bought himself an island in Central America. He died in Costa Rica in 1983. Further biographical information is available at The Tupperware Collection, The New York Times obituary, Daily Maverick, or Wikipedia.

Between 1933 and 1937, Tupper kept a daily diary of his activities. As far as I know these have never been published. However, they are used (and quoted from) extensively by Kathleen Franz in her book Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005). This is available to preview at Googlebooks. The opening paragraphs in Chapter 4 - A Tinkerer’s Story (i.e. about Tupper) - are worth quoting in full. (The illustration below also comes from Franz’s book.)

‘Earl Silas Tupper represents one grass-roots inventor who embraced the prolific advice literature on the importance of individual inventors and the profitability of patents during the Great Depression. Tupper, creator of the famous plastic containers that bear his name, was an avid tinkerer who began his inventive career by patenting and promoting an automobile accessory. In the 1930s, a young Earl Tupper tinkered with the design of numerous consumer novelties ranging from hairpins and permanently creased dress pants to a streamlined sled. While many of these were fleeting ideas, he promoted some quite vigorously. Tupper kept detailed diaries and notes of his daily activities between 1933 and 1937, and these documents reveal the intense efforts of one consumer-turned-amateur inventor to heed popular advice on invention, to emulate an older generation of independent inventors, and to successfully market his automotive improvements for profit.

Even as the design of the automobile became more complete in the 1930s and university-trained engineers and designers took greater control of technological innovations in the car, Tupper proved that tinkerers still saw the automobile as a fertile field for improvement. Tupper focused his efforts on patenting and marketing a collapsible top for rumble seats, which he dubbed the Clipper Rumble-Top. The rumble-seat top embodied Tupper’s hopes for gaining fame and fortune from invention. His writings reflect the widely held belief in the democratic nature of invention. Like many inventors, he hoped his patents would provide the capital on which to build personal financial security.

For Tupper, invention provided the key to individual success. Although Tupper wrote about the humanitarian benefits of invention, the bulk of his diary entries reflected his more immediate worries about money and his goal of improving his own material circumstances through patenting and selling his ideas. Popular advice encouraged tinkerers like Tupper to model themselves on inventor-heroes of previous generations and to use their own experience to redesign existing machines. A devoted student of popular magazine stories about invention, Tupper embodied what historian Brooke Hindle has called the process of emulation, an empirical approach to invention in the nineteenth century that relied on “fingertip knowledge,” creativity, and a desire to “equal and surpass the work of other [inventors].” Advice experts and committed grass-roots inventors like Tupper continued the process of emulation into the twentieth century, sustaining the efforts of those who invented outside a growing system of corporate research and development laboratories.

Earl Tupper’s coming of age in New England fit the genre of inventor biographies circulating in the popular literature of the early twentieth century. Born on a New Hampshire farm to a family of modest means, Tupper “developed a love of invention” and “showed an enterprising and entrepreneurial spirit” by the age of ten. Tupper worked at odd jobs and, through study and persistence, achieved success by inventing a simple plastic container. This simplified story, however, obscures the haphazard and difficult path Tupper followed prior to his success. Tupper had a complex relationship to automobility and to invention. His diaries speak not only to the economic hardships faced by many Americans during the Great Depression but also the hopes and difficulties of patent management for grass-roots inventors. Tupper’s experiences serve as a bridge between nineteenth-century ideas of invention as democratic and accessible and a modern corporate structure that placed invention and innovation in the hands of trained scientists and engineers who worked for large corporations.’

And here are several brief excerpts from Tupper’s diary, all of which I have extracted from Franz’s narrative (each one, therefore, is very likely to have been taken from a longer entry in the diary itself).

2 January 1933
‘Lately I have developed a ravenous appetite for knowledge, [. . .] Why couldn’t I have realized my real future desires while in school?’

7 January 1933
‘If I can get a little money ahead, I’ll show the world some real inventions. [. . .] I let my imagination play to-day . . . on what I would buy if I had only . . . $10,000 to spend. (Boy! - it was tough getting back to the depression).’

12 January 1933
‘I’ll be a super being if I successfully complete it [a programme of study].’

20 January 1933
‘I am ever impressed by the vast amount of interesting - fascinating - and elevating knowledge to be had by the ambitious in this world. It is impossible to live long enough to acquire it all.’

10 February 1933
‘It certainly is amazing what a rotten grafting game our politicians can get away with - even when the facts are broadcast to the people. If this old depression could continue for five more years,  think it would much to awaken the masses to activity towards wiping out corruption.’

4 March 1933
‘This noon we heard . .. President Roosevelt sworn into office. . . Mr. Roosevelt said a lot of nice things if he can and will see them through. I hope this old depression either grows much worse, or leaves us entirely - and very soon. Boy! I feel more stranded than Robinson Coruso [sic] even could have felt. . . It’s certain things can get no worse for me - financially.’

5 May 1933
‘That rumble top certainly looks like somebody’s Million Dollars.’

18 June 1933
‘I am too strapped for money and have notebooks full of sketches and a house of models of inventions awaiting completion and business. [ . . .] If I had a car, I could take care of myself.’

25 June 1933
‘No matter how poets and song writers play up pagan existence and Midevial [sic] civilizations, I’ll still take modern civilization . . . and ultra modern civilization - the more advanced the better I’m for it.”

23 July 1933
‘Gosh this standing around with nothing to do, is driving me crazy. I’m going to start making tops if nothing else.’

10 August 1933
‘Those birds don’t mind saying mean things to a poor little inventor. Just the same, I still believe that I can make money and selling those tops.’

10 September 1933
‘I have just $19 left to my name, no car, and apparently nothing else. With those business assets, I must take care of a fine little wife and a darling child. [. . .] I could always live, but to carry on and keep life for them worth living is a problem - it has been for a year.’

9 December 1933
‘How I crave a new auto now!’

7 February 1934
‘Mr. Sheedy doesn’t want to spend any more money until he sees what we can do toward merchandising the top. I believe that the patent should be granted, then we would have something to sell. As it is we have nothing. [. . .] And since Mr. Sheedy is paying the bill, I can’t say much.’

8 March 1934
‘I hope they sell like hot-cakes.’

22 March 1934
‘I’ve been planning sales campaigns, moving, buying a car, and everything else.’

22 January 1937
‘I can do this designing better than anyone else.’

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