Our New and Improved! National History

Corporate donors are reaching out to the Smithsonian and other institutions, making sure that history gets told in a corporate-friendly way. Companies from Disney to DuPont have jumped in the game, and our history and national identity hang in the balance.


Yesterday, the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History held a press briefing to launch the publication of a new book, “Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America,” by Alison J. Clarke (Smithsonian Press, 1999).

In the book, Clarke tells the story of Earl Tupper and Brownie Wise. Tupper, the conservative New Englander who worked for DuPont, created Tupperware in 1942. Tupper believed that Tupperware would improve women’s lives — no more spills or odors in the refrigerator, no more wasted leftovers.

But for years, Americans were not impressed with plastics or Earl Tupper’s food containers. Tupperware sat on store shelves.

Enter Brownie Wise. Wise, a middle-aged housewife and impoverished single mom, sold Tupperware door-to-door. Tupper was amazed by her numbers. Tupper wanted to know her secret. Wise confessed: the Tupperware home party.

Tupper pulled his entire product line from all department stores and retail outlets. In 1951, the Tupperware party became the company’s exclusive form of distribution and sales. By the mid-1950s, the Tupperware party became a regular occurrence throughout America and sales boomed.

Friction grew between the reclusive Tupper and the flamboyant Wise. He fired her in the late 1950s, but the corporation continued to flourish.

Today, a Tupperware party is held every 2.5 seconds, sales top $1.2 billion worldwide, and Tupperware has become a cultural symbol for the American way of life.

“Astounding,” is the way the Smithsonian public relations people put it.

Perhaps. But nowhere in the book, and nowhere in the press materials handed out by the Smithsonian, is there any mention of the controversy raging over the impact of the plastics industry on our health and on the earth.

The book covers “the promise of plastic in 1950s America.” But what about the consequences? Why no questions about the workers in the industry, and people who live near plastics manufacturing facilities, and the threat to their health and well being? Why no questions about the 30 percent (by volume) of municipal landfills that are filled with plastics and the impact this has on the environment?

A large percentage of Americans believe that plastics are harmful to health and the environment. But the Smithsonian never addresses the issue. Why? And why is the Smithsonian publishing a book that asks so few critical questions about the company?

In December 1984, The Tupper Foundation — the foundation started by Earl — gave $4 million to the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

Earl Tupper’s papers were donated to the Smithsonian’s Museum of American history — papers that Clarke relied on to research her book. In May 1993, the Tupper Foundation also gave $200,000 to the archives collection at the Museum of American History, where Earl Tupper’s papers are housed. Tupperware Worldwide, the company, gave $15,000 to the Smithsonian over the past four years to safeguard archival film footage about the company. This financial support was not disclosed to reporters at the press conference, or in the book.

Smithsonian officials pretend not to understand the problem of corporate control over history.

“Why is it important?” asks Mimi Minnick, an archivist at Tupper collection at the Smithsonian. “They are a private family. [The $200,000] is an unrestricted gift. They had no control or influence over the book. They didn’t buy anything.”

It could be that Tupperware and the Tupper family didn’t buy anything from the Smithsonian. But the rule of thumb in these cases is simple — don’t bite the hand that feeds you. And the Smithsonian didn’t.

The Smithsonian used to be a public space — where independent historians could present history and independent scientists could present science — free of the distorting lens of profit-making large corporations.

Now, it has been transformed into an bustling accounts receivable — where big money defines the outline of history and science.

In the past, the Smithsonian has taken big money from the chemical industry to present an exhibit on “Science in American Life” and from the oil industry to present an exhibit on “Oil in the Arctic.” Now, it puts out a puff piece on plastics.

And of course, it is not just the Smithsonian that is selling its public space to the highest bidder. It’s almost a daily event in our nation’s capital.

Tonight, for example, at the Library of Congress, the Library will host an interview by Parade magazine editor Walter Anderson of Disney Corporation Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner, part of a series “on the moral, academic and technological challenges of the next century.”

We put in a call to Library spokesperson Craig D’Ooge to inquire as to how much money Disney has donated in recent years to the Library of Congress. “They are a major contributor,” D’Ooge said. “I’ll get back to you with the numbers.”

Russell Mokhiber is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter and Robert Weissman is the editor of Washington, D.C. -based Multinational Monitor. Their column appears weekly on the MoJo Wire.