"Through an act of genius and alchemy," as historian Alison J. Clarke writes in Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America, "Earl Tupper summoned forth a divine creation to benefit humanity." Yes, there really was a Mr. Tupper; born on July 28, 1907, the man who redefined consumer plastics and became famous for transforming black industrial polyethylene waste into clear, flexible, lightweight, non-toxic "Poly T" would be celebrating his 104th birthday today.
But contrary to what one might expect from Clarke's description, all was not perfect, effortless plastic for Tupper, who invented his prized creation only after toiling in obscurity for more than three decades, holding a series of odd jobs: farmer, railroad laborer, mail clerk, and founder of Tupper Tree Doctors, which failed in 1936. It was a trajectory that mirrored his creative impulses. Tupper filled journals with countless ideas for wildly varied inventions that never caught on—we remember him for his plastic containers, but he also dreamed up knitting needles, flour sifters, a creosote gun that would rid trees of gypsy moth eggs, non-drip ice cream cones, tampon cases, portable necktie racks, plastic eye shields to use while dying eyebrows, a toothpaste and shaving cream dispenser, a medical device for the non-surgical removal of the appendix, the "Kamoflage comb" (a nail file and comb masquerading as a fountain pen), and a boat powered by a giant fish. Tupper's personal papers are archived at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Here are some of his sketches, plucked from the archive—windows into the constantly churning oddball creative mind that gave rise to one of the 20th century's great consumer innovations.
Images: Smithsonian Archives; via PBS
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