SHIRLEY – For a trip back in time to a kitchen out of the 1950s – with bright red and blue dishes and pastel-colored Tupperware containers – head to the Shirley Historical Society Museum at the Lucy Longley Memorial Building on a Saturday morning.
The new exhibit pays tribute to a former Shirley resident, the late Earl Tupper, who invented Tupperware, and was born just over 100 years ago.
The kitchen’s interior is furnished with a ringer washing machine, an early television set, and 1950s-style aprons, dresses, linens, and mixing bowls. Early samples as well as modern Tupperware are displayed, demonstrating how the colors of the plastic containers evolved over the years, from pastel hues in the 1950s to avocado-greens in the 1970s.
The display also showcases photographs of Tupper and letters he wrote to the then town historian, Lucy Longley, who convinced him to donate some money to the Shirley Historical Society. This money was used to build the museum, which houses the current exhibit.
“Tupper came to the groundbreaking ceremony, helped with the first shovel-full, and we have a picture of him doing that,” said Historical Society curator Meredith Marcinkewicz.
The inventor of Tupperware was born on July 28, 1907, in Berlin, N.H., but grew up in Shirley. According to Marcinkewicz, he attended elementary school in Shirley and Fitchburg High School, and helped his parents in the Tupper Greenhouse, a family business that was also in Shirley.
Before hitting gold with his air-tight plastic containers, Tupper tried his hand at many unsuccessful inventions, including a fish-powered boat. For about 10 years, he kept diaries and invention notebooks, in which he chronicled his daily life and wacky get-rich-quick ideas.
Historian Alison J. Clarke, who wrote the book “Tupperware – The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America,” and studied Tupper’s notebooks, said that as a young man in the 1930s, Tupper was living in a “poverty-stricken situation” and was frustrated with his parents because they lacked entrepreneurial spirit.
In his diaries, he wrote about massive inflation, the rising price of peanut butter, and revealed that he was often living on credit, coming to the end of the month with no money left. Still, Clarke said, Tupper “went window-shopping quite frequently to look at things he couldn’t afford” and spent lots of money on robot catalogs and fancy things like the latest fountain pen, a sharkskin briefcase, and a silent typewriter.
Tupper’s early inventions included ladies’ corsets made from wood and metal; a comb with a lipstick holder; upside-down underwater spectacles; and knitting needles that would coordinate with the colors of yarn. His idea was that “women would have a collection of knitting needles in multicolors,” Clarke said.
Tupperware was an invention that caught on because it was right for its time, said Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, who made a documentary about Tupperware. The idea was that a vacuum-sealed container kept leftovers fresh longer, which was important for the generation that grew up in the Depression, she explained. And although Tupperware wasn’t cheap, the argument was that it saved you money in the long run.
“It’s a totally New England invention. It’s about saving things – which is a very Protestant, New England moralistic idea,” Clarke said.
Although the plastic container was invented in 1945, it did not really sell until the 1950s, when a woman named Brownie Wise came up with a new marketing strategy: the Tupperware party. These parties were held in private homes and the lady of the house got a commission for hosting. She would invite a group of her friends over to demonstrate and sell Tupperware.
After becoming a millionaire, Tupper divorced his wife, gave up his US citizenship, and moved to Central America because he did not want to pay taxes, historians say. He died in 1983 in Costa Rica.
The exhibition in Shirley opened on July 14 with a traditional Tupperware party, with Diane Bliss of Leominster as the hostess saleswoman. The party, according to Marcinkewicz, is ongoing, and a portion of the proceeds from any Tupperware products purchased through a catalog while the exhibition lasts will benefit the museum. One of the visitors to the exhibit was Tupper’s only surviving sibling, Gladys Cook, who is 92 1/2 and still lives in Shirley. Contacted by telephone recently, Mrs. Cook said she is not rich, and that she was not very close to her brother.
“He was very busy. When I was 8, he was 16. That’s a big difference. They don’t tell you anything, you just exist,” she recalled.
Mrs. Cook said her granddaughter drove her to the Historical Society’s exhibit, but she said she was not extremely excited to see it because she is accustomed to her brother’s fame.
“He got to be the millionaire that he wanted to be,” Mrs. Cook said. “Money doesn’t rub off, that’s what I tell everybody.”