Tupperware chiefs close the lid on British party sales

Chief Reporter,Terry Kirby
Friday 24 January 2003 01:00

The parties are over for Tupperware. Once the height of middle-class housewife chic, the cosy get-togethers over coffee and cakes have followed the hostess trolley and other symbols of the post-war consumer boom into oblivion.

Tupperware parties have been killed off by a combination of internet shopping, cheap competition and Ann Summers parties, where women can buy at home exotic lingerie and sex toys rather than plastic boxes for food storage.

The company, based in Florida, announced yesterday that it was closing its British party sales business, putting out of work 1,500 Tupperware demonstrators, 160 managers and 20 distributors. Although the company admitted UK sales were poor, it declined to give details and said sales across Europe had increased.

A spokeswoman said "times were changing". The company was reviewing its selling techniques but while the parties in their current form would stop, some kind of party sales system might return in the future, she said. Sales would continue through stalls in shopping centres and other outlets and Tupperware would still not be available over the counter.

The parties will continue in the United States, where Earl Tupper, an amateur inventor from New Hampshire, created Tupperware in the 1940s.

A religious, conservative man, Tupper envisaged post-war America being transformed by "Tupperisation" as thrifty housewives saved money by storing and serving food using his containers, writes Alison J Clarke, author of the definitive Tupperware – the promise of plastic in 1950s America, published in 2001.

His other inventions, including underwater mirrors and a method for removing the appendix through the rectum without an operation, were less successful. But Tupperware took off and, by 1956, it was a multimillion-dollar business, making millionaires out of housewives profiting from the consumer boom. The corpor-ation is now valued at about $1bn and a Tupperware party is said to begin somewhere in the world every 2.2 seconds.

Ms Clarke, a senior tutor in design history at the Royal College of Art, said the company was advised against beginning parties in the UK because the British were seen to be too private about their homes. "But after a few renegade British Tupperites began their own parties it blossomed and attained a social cachet among the middle classes. It was an aspirational thing."

The taste for the restrained atmosphere of a Tupperware party, at which alcohol is banned, has been replaced by a surge of interest in Ann Summers parties. And for those who still want to buy and sell Tupperware, they can do so just as easily over the internet.

"Tupperware is a fascinating phenomenon," Ms Clarke said. "Although they do have better seals than many food containers and very rigorous testing system, they are just plastic boxes. It's the aesthetic ritual that goes with them that gives the added value."

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