Fantastic Plastic

A kitchenware maker keeps up with the times.

Tupperware World Every 2.5 seconds, somewhere on the planet, a Tupperware party is thrown; nearly $1.4 billion dollars' worth of Tupperware is sold annually in more than 100 markets worldwide. By the numbers alone, the kitchenware company that New Hampshire inventor Earl Tupper founded in 1939 displays its reach. Take a closer look at Tupperware's trajectory, and you can chart the past half-century of kitchen culture in the U.S. and beyond.Todd Coleman/Jon Whittle

Last fall my friend Melissa Easton, a Brooklyn-based industrial designer, got a call from Susan Perkins, the vice president of worldwide design at Tupperware. As tidily as its bowls stacked up, Perkins told Easton, Tupperware hadn't yet devised a way to store the lids. So Easton came up with the Keep Tabs containers, which nest with their lids on, like Russian dolls. Available in sizes as small as five ounces, Keep Tabs was an instant hit in countries like Mexico and Uruguay where kitchens are small and every bit of saved food counts. It turns out that it's just one of 135 new products that the Orlando, Florida-based company released last year, many of them—like the reusable Eco by Tupperware Water Bottle—designed for both space-saving and conservation. It got me thinking about the Tupperware my siblings and I grew up with in the 1960s—Snack Storers, Pie Wedges, Ice Tups for popsicles—all highly practical in a household with four kids, all (like the 28 items pictured, representing 64 years of design) reflective of their era. Ever since Earl Tupper introduced his polyethylene Bell Tumbler in 1946, followed by the lidded Wonderlier Bowl, Tupperware designs have captured America's culinary zeitgeist: the Dip 'N Serve Tray and TV Tumblers of the 1950s, television's golden age; the Tortilla Keeper from the jet-set, globalizing 1960s; the microwave-ready TupperWave of the 1970s; and so on. All the while, Tupperware has also made products that reflect the needs of home cooks beyond the 50 states: CheeSmart ventilated cheese storers for Europe, Bento Boxes for Japan, and, most recently, the Nature Nano water filter for China. But ask Susan Perkins which of Tupperware's 5,000 designs she likes best, and she returns to the enduring Wonderlier. "It's functional and pretty. I like that about our products; they don't all have to change."