Serial doodler, drafter, and brainstormer, New Hampshire–born Earl S. Tupper was an inventor obsessed with improving everyday household objects. His rough sketches, scrawled with a fountain pen over rapidly yellowing notebook paper, include an eyebrow shield to allow more precise penciling; adjustable glasses; hairpins that wouldn’t fall out; and garter hooks that remained fastened. “My purpose in life [is] to take each thing as I find it and . . . see how I can improve it,” he wrote.
One day in 1945, after finishing his day’s work at the laboratory of the Earl S. Tupper Company in Leominster, Massachusetts, Tupper took home a hunk of polyethylene slag, a waste product from the oil refining process. By heating the brittle, greasy, waxy substance to a liquid state, injecting it into a tight mold, and carefully controlling the pressure of the molding process, he transformed it into the lightweight, nontoxic, odorless, and resilient plastic used today. Before that, polyethylene, which had first been synthesized for industrial purposes by the British Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd. in 1933, had been used mainly to coat electric cables.
Tupper’s passion for improving everyday products soon found a use for polyethylene in a bowl with a sealing lid that was modeled on paint can lids. His most famous idea would fundamentally change kitchens across America by replacing heavy, expensive, and easily breakable glass bowls with virtually indestructible, inexpensive alternatives with lids that kept food fresh and prevented leaks. After Tupper hired marketing mastermind Brownie Wise in 1951, thrilled homemakers lined up to host Tupperware parties. The networking scheme transformed Tupperware into a multimillion-dollar business, and this year Fortune magazine ranked Tupperware Brands Corporation as the second most admired company in the entire household products industry.