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by Nathan Bierma
'Modern Dishes For Modern Living'
Historians accuse 1950s America of dreaming mundane dreams after the defining moments of World War II. This suspicion seems to be born out in a new documentary's footage of a chipper Tupperware lady gushing about "modern dishes for modern living." She exclaims to a living room audience: "Haven't you wished for unspillable containers that wouldn't break?"
What was wrought by the "bowls that burped" is examined in American Experience's "Tupperware!" which re-airs tonight on many PBS stations (it was originally broadcast in February). The documentary, written and directed by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt and narrated by (no, not Florence Henderson) Kathy Bates, concentrates less on Tupperware products than on the social significance of Tupperware parties, which first spread through American living rooms in the 1950s. These gatherings, the precursor of what we now ominously call "viral marketing," gave Tupperware the exposure it sorely lacked when it first fashioned its opaque containers. But more important, Kahn-Leavitt says, Tupperware parties provided social validation and economic identity to women who—as Betty Friedan and now Mona Lisa Smile have pounded into the American mind—lived low-ceilinged lives confined to the kitchen. (Actually, more women worked outside the home in the 1950s than the decade before, as one historian notes at "Tupperware!"'s extensive companion Web site.)
Kahn-Leavitt's decision to rush through the invention of Tupperware is disappointing, for the product's science is as interesting as its sociology. During World War II, DuPont developed a plastic compound called polyethylene to insulate electrical wiring on war equipment. After the war it solicited suggestions for how to sell polyethylene to American consumers. One factory worker, Earl Tupper (whose previous get-rich schemes, including the fish-propelled boat and the belt-buckle picture frame, somehow never caught on), took some polyethylene pellets, fiddled with his molding machines, and came up with ...