Nov. 10, 1999 | In 1942, a New Hampshire inventor named Earl Silas Tupper produced a bell-shaped, flexible, injection-molded polyethylene container that would quickly prove ideal for a multitude of kitchen uses. Tupperware had made its first appearance, and as soon as World War II ended and an era of American consumption could begin, the rest would be history. But what kind of history?
That's not at all a frivolous question. In "Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America," an entertaining study of the sociological and psychological significance of the phenomenon, Alison J. Clarke, a tutor in design history and material culture at the Royal College of Art in London, breaks new ground in our understanding of 1950s culture. She takes pains to debunk two commonly held scholarly interpretations of those ubiquitous plastic bowls and presents her own quite convincing neofeminist alternative. Tupperware, it turns out, makes an effective prism through which to view aspects of the cultural development of the nation in the latter portion of this century.
As Clarke points out, Tupperware couldn't possibly have achieved its place in American life without the Tupperware party, that oft-ridiculed but wildly successful suburban mainstay. The plastic containers, however attractive and functional they may have been, were languishing on the shelves until 1951, when Earl Tupper, in an act that, Clarke says, showed either "inspired entrepreneurial vision or a reflection of his desperation," handed over his entire sales effort to a neophyte named Brownie Wise.
Wise, an impoverished single mother from Detroit with little but a dream in her heart, was a true American original. She soon built a vast nationwide network of women dedicated to selling Tupper's products out of their homes. Her flamboyant style and the cult of personality she encouraged came into conflict with Tupper's austere New England ways. The clash ultimately got her fired; the "party plan" lives on to this day as Tupperware goes international.
Clarke rejects two academic views of the Tupperware phenomenon, one favorable and one critical. The positive one is that Tupperware became an American icon entirely because it was "a simple, uncluttered functional design, born of the modernist ethos 'Form Follows Function.'" Not so, Clarke argues: The Museum of Modern Art may have put Tupperware on exhibit in 1956, but American women wanted it in their refrigerators because it conveyed middle-class status, because it appealed simultaneously to frugality and ostentation and because their friends and neighbors were selling it and buying it.
The negative view is that the Tupperware party was a vapid, stifling, oppressive institution imposed upon passive American women by the forces of mass culture and advertising. Clarke strongly dissents: Actually, she says, Tupperware culture "offered an alternative to the patriarchal structures of conventional sales structures, which many women, completely alienated from the conventional workplace, wholeheartedly embraced." And Tupperware events permitted many women of the 1950s to gain their voices by speaking in public, thus developing the self-esteem they had lacked. Fostered by Brownie Wise's elaborate circles of reward for sales achievements, Tupperware's "self-help ethos countered alienation and fostered self-determination."
The 1950s are undergoing a reappraisal, with some scholars concluding that the drab black-and-white tones in which the movie "Pleasantville" conveyed the decade don't do it justice and that a good deal more was happening in those suburban developments than we had believed. Clarke's work is a significant addition to the reconsideration of that misunderstood decade.
The "look but don't touch" girls
Louis Meisel, the king of the pinup, celebrates the goddesses of all-American flesh.
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By David Bowman
June 21, 2001 | Those American girls. Sitting primly in their sleek swimsuits -- hands behind their heads, their breasts like happy nose cones. They were "look but don't touch" girls.
Pictures of these dolls were called "cheesecake." Supposedly the term comes from a photographer's trick to induce a smile: "Say cheese." But a distant fable says that, in 1912, New York Journal photographer James Kane was developing a photo of an actress whose gown had slipped open. The man was at a loss for words at this vision of delicious flesh. All he could finally say was "What cheesecake!"
"What cheesecake!" was probably the first exclamation out of Louis K. Meisel's mouth when he was a baby in 1950s Brooklyn, N.Y. Meisel is perhaps the foremost expert on the American pinup, that cultural icon whose golden age occurred between 1930 and 1960, when pastel and airbrushed paintings of long-legged, busty dames graced magazine covers, barbershop calendars and even the sides of Air Force bombers.
In the past 20 years, there has been a resurgence of interest in cheesecake. "Everything that you've seen happening, without bragging, is 100 percent due to my efforts for showing pinups as fine art in this gallery," Meisel says. "I'm a collector first before I'm a dealer," he says. "Somewhere back around 1975 it occurred to me that the original works by the pinup artists of the '30s, '40s and '50s were absolutely undercollected, undershown."
Meisel tells the story of how Brown & Bigelow, the biggest calendar company in the country, was going bankrupt in 1972. To raise money it unloaded its extensive archives of girlie art by selling original paintings for 10 bucks apiece. "I began seeing pinups in flea markets, and now I have the biggest collection in the world."
Meisel is a handsome, suburban-looking middle-aged guy. He doesn't resemble a trendy SoHo gallery owner. Neither does he look like a guy with an out-front obsession for American sexual nostalgia. "Pinups aren't generally about nudity," he explains while showing off his collection. "Pinups are about the all-American girl that the boys fighting the war dreamed of coming home to, finding and marrying. As you got into the 1950s, pinups were what women wanted to look like. That's what men wanted women to look like." Meisel gets sad. He speaks three "P" words slowly: "Playboy ... photography ... pubic hair." That killed it for pinups.
The basement of Meisel's SoHo gallery is stacked with the revered paintings. Meisel is clearly in love: "Look at the difference between this girl in the 1950s in her bikini and this girl today in her negligee. There's a nurse lying on her stomach. There's a woman in a red dress with wind blowing up her skirt. This is from Stocking Parade Magazine. Women wearing evening gowns were called 'glamour' pictures. Look at that one: She's wearing a miniskirt holding a gun. That's 'Fishing Girl 1958,' 'Shuffle Board 1949,' 'Miss Sylvania 1960' in an evening gown. Look at this -- this is the original painting: the girl in a one-piece bathing suit waving. This was the original sketch. She's wearing a polka dot bikini. The calendar company asked him to change her into a blond wearing a one-piece suit."
Meisel's appreciation for pinups may seem like a retro masculine wet dream, but some so-called third-wave feminists also champion pinups. Art historian Maria Buszek claims that, during World War II, Rosie the Riveter found pinup dames an inspiration. Pinups "provided a model through which women could construct themselves as the image of the contemporary homefront woman: at once both conventionally feminine and transgressively aware of her own power and potential for agency on levels both personal and political. Furthermore it can be argued that the Vargas Girls' icy, controlled presence seemed the perfect stance to emulate for a nation of young women looking to assert this new-found sense of awareness and control over their own sexuality."
That said, the most striking quality of any all-American pinup is the girl's bullet-shaped chassis, her substantial breasts. The subject of hooters is the one thing that gets Meisel tongue-tied. "Big breasts? No. That's not true." [Pause] "Not necessarily." [Pause] "Do they or don't they -- I dunno." [Pause] "Let's just say that for women in the 1950s it was OK to have bigger breasts than in the 1960s with Twiggy and the 1970s." [Pause] "But now it's come back to that. Now you have more full-figured women who look like women." What if you're a leg man? "Legs were important," he says. Then, for the first and only time, he gets close to vulgar and says, "Tits and legs." [Pause] "Not too much ass back in the 1950s. You see very few backfield views."
Meisel's contributions to American art extend beyond the objectification of women in the form of cheesecake. He's the one who coined the term "photorealism." "I had a very small art gallery on Madison Avenue in 1967," he explains. "I was 25. There was no way I was going to represent the abstract expressionists or the pop artists. Then I saw a Chuck Close painting. I began gravitating to artists like him. They didn't do many paintings a year; I could fit them in a gallery. No one else was paying attention. Somebody said, 'What do you call it?' I coined it 'photorealism.'"
Meisel soon fell in love with all aspects of American realism. He mentions Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth in the same sentence. Then he laments, "While abstract expressionism reigned supreme, realistic art was stuck on the back shelf." He says "the well of American realism" included the Hudson River School, the Ashcan School and the Luminous Artist School. He adds, "Where was their outlet? In illustration, magazine illustrations, book covers, calendars. While Jackson Pollock was reigning supreme there were still great American realists like Gil Elvgren."
Perhaps Elvgren (1914-80) is the perfect subject for Ed Harris' follow-up to "Pollock." A typical Elvgren painting has a busty blond wearing black stockings, straddling the back of a polar bear rug. Jackson Pollock, roll over!
Last year, Meisel wrote the book "Gil Elvgren: All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups." Next fall he will complete a book on the "father" of the pinup, Rolf Armstrong (1889-1960). Meisel is quick to point out that although these pinup artists were forgotten to cultural history, they were among the most successful artists of their day. "In 1947, Elvgren was getting $5,000 a painting. He was making $75,000 a year. At that point, my father was making $5,000 a year and we were living very nicely in our own house in Brooklyn."
While pinup artists gather belated respect, let's not forget the stacked dishes (women) they painted. All the great pinup artists worked from live models or posed photographs. Meisel mentions that Norma Jean did pinup modeling before she became Marilyn Monroe. He mentions several other actresses, including Barbara Hale (Perry Mason's secretary Della Street), who modeled for artists while she was at the Art Institute in Chicago. Meisel shows his single painting of Hale, posing gracefully in a green evening gown instead of a skimpy bathing suit. Nothing that would get Raymond Burr hard.
Meisel then talks about the most famous pinup model of all time, Bettie Page, who posed only for photographs, not pastels. "Bettie started modeling when she was very young, in 1951," Meisel says. "She came to New York. She was a total fun-loving girl. A guy named Irving Claw would pay her $50 per hour to pose and then could charge 20 photographers 20 bucks apiece to photograph her for an afternoon. She'd take off her top. Jump in the surf. And they'd be clicking. There were billions of photographs taken. No model's releases were signed. There were no residuals. The photographers would sell their pictures wherever they could. Then, in 1957, Bettie became a born-again Christian and quit the business."
At first glance, a photograph hanging on Meisel's wall appears to be of Meisel and Bettie Page. But the dame isn't Page. It's Susan, his wife. He makes no bones about the resemblance. He says he found his own Bettie Page. Obviously this man's taste in art and women is one and the same. More than once, he says, "This is what women wanted to look like. That's what men wanted them to look like. There was no 'politically correct' back then."
Perhaps the only historical aspect of pinup art that Meisel has neglected is the Caucasian factor. He mentions that the great Vargas painted a few black Playmates with Afros in the 1960s. Other than that, Meisel knows of no African-American pinup art.
But feminist historian Joanne Meyerowitz (editor of "Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960") reveals that Ebony and Negro Digest contained chocolate cheesecake for a few years after World War II. These girlie pictures were controversial among the magazines' mostly female readership. Although most women were offended because of predictable moral reasons, there were a surprising number of pro-pinup readers. One subscriber wrote, "The white man glorifies the pulchritude of his fair sex in his magazine and daily papers. I commend you for taking the lone stand in doing the same for Negro women."
No doubt the political and social stance toward the golden age of pinup art will bend according to the intellectual whim of each succeeding decade. It's good to remember that Titian was really just a part-time cheesecake painter in 16th century Venice. Whether or not any of the American realists who painted pictures like those of the embarrassed "fishing girl" -- the bimbette who accidentally hooks up her own skirt, revealing long gams and garters -- are great artists, they capture the mythology that Americans are essentially innocents. After all, "fishing girl" is never mortified that her panties are revealed, only pleasantly startled. For this reason Meisel's cheesecake collection is more intrinsically American than Mom's apple pie.
AN EXCERPT FROM "THE BODY PROJECT, AN INTIMATE HISTORY OF AMERICAN GIRLS" BY JOAN JACOBS BRUMBERG.
In 1952, in an article in Parents' Magazine, physician Frank H. Crowell endorsed bras for young girls and spelled out a theory and program of teenage breast management ... In the interest of both beauty and health, mothers in the 1950s were encouraged to check their daughters' breasts regularly to see if they were developing properly. This was not just a matter of a quick look and a word of reassurance. Instead, Crowell and others suggested systematic scrutiny as often as every three months to see if the breasts were positioned correctly. One way to chart the geography of the adolescent bustline was to have the girl stand sideways in a darkened room against a wall covered with white paper. By shining a bright light on her and having her throw out her chest at a provocative angle, a mother could trace a silhouette that indicated the actual shape of her daughter's bosom. By placing a pencil under her armpit and folding the arm that held it across the waist, mothers could also determine if their daughter's nipples were in the right place. On a healthy breast, the nipple was supposed to be at least halfway above the midway point between the location of the pencil and the hollow of the elbow.
BY LAURA GREEN | When I was growing up, the children's room of the local public library featured a bookcase whose peeling label identified its contents as "Especially for Girls." Standing in an out-of-the-way corner, the bookcase expressed a conception of femininity that now seems quaint, if not actually sinister. The books, most of them written before 1960 -- before I was born -- were unlikely to raise the consciousness of young girls or halt their self-esteem in its predictable pubescent plunge. The girls in these books worried about getting a date for the prom or a good manicure; problems involved inconvenient baby-sitting responsibilities or boys who didn't call. The acme of ambition was wearing a boy's pin, ring or ID bracelet. Career opportunities were represented by "Mary Ellis, Student Nurse" and Noel Streatfield's "Ballet Shoes." No one on the "Especially for Girls" shelf ever grew up to be president, or even Martina Navratilova.
Yet, despite their attachment to gender conventions, their obsession with romance, their relentless celebration of large nuclear families in small idyllic towns, I -- a childless, lesbian urbanite -- remember those books with love. They're like your childhood best friend who grew up to be a suburban, Republican orthodontist: You may have nothing in common now, but you can't quite forget that when you were 8, you pledged mutual devotion forever, in blood from pricked fingers.
I was an unathletic, dreamy bookworm in a cold New England college town, and for a few pre-adolescent years around 1970, "Especially for Girls" invited me into a soothing fantasy universe whose problems and rituals were both similar to those in the real world (which mostly involved being chosen last for volleyball or owning the wrong kind of jeans) and as mysterious as the customs of an unknown tribe. "Beany Malone sat in front of her dressing table with its yellow plaid skirt, which she had made herself, and extracted bobby pins from tight little snails of hair," began "Make a Wish for Me" (1956), and I, a 10-year-old in a home furnished in equal parts bargain basement and Danish modern, was immediately hooked by the unfamiliar. What exactly did a girl do at a dressing table? How could a table have a skirt? I couldn't picture those "tight little snails," either: Home permanents were not part of my cosmetic universe, and when I did encounter bobby pins a few years later, it would be in a long and losing attempt to straighten my own curls into the smooth, Vidal Sassoon fall of the '70s.
Social life was equally mysterious: Jane Purdy, the heroine of "Fifteen" (1956), was forever slipping into and out of the imitation-leather booths of "Nibley's soda fountain"; she sometimes arrived in her boyfriend's car, which, to her relief, was neither a "jalopy" nor a "hot rod." When I got to be Jane's age, spending late afternoons hunched against the wind in the park across from the junior high, smoking cigarettes with kids who would probably have been kicked out of Nibley's, the nostalgia I felt for Jane's movie-and-a-coke dates was so intense it was as if they were something not that I had read about once, but that I had actually experienced and lost.
The girlishness of these heroines could certainly be sickening. "Fifteen," for example, is devoted to Jane's pursuit of a new boy in town named Stan. Inexperienced and insecure, Jane works to become the kind of girl she thinks boys like: She resolves to read the sports section, in case Stan cares about sports, and to look up the word "carburetor" so that she can talk to him about his new car. She keeps her hands folded in her lap at the movies so that Stan will not think she is "the kind of girl who expected to have her hand held just because she was sitting in the dark with a boy"; she pretends to familiarity with Chinese food (pretty exotic, apparently, in 1956) and a taste for coffee.
Jane succeeds: "Fifteen" concludes, "Smiling to herself, Jane turned and walked toward the house. She was Stan's girl. That was all that really mattered." Reading this now, I think, not by a long shot; I want to shake her and demand, "You must have hopes, wishes, dreams other than Stan Crandall." Beany Malone and her friends in "Make a Wish for Me," meanwhile, devoted endless consideration to the question of whether making out on dates ruins a girl's reputation, concluding that "Men always feel the need to look up to a woman. It's always been up to the girl to set the pace." Not much room, apparently, for the question of what the girls themselves might need or find pleasurable.
But dated and even dangerous as their morals may seem, many of these books still circulate in the children's room of your local library, and they still hold a place in my heart. Partly, this longevity testifies to the fact that being a girl hasn't, in fact, changed as much as we might think or hope it has since 1956. I sometimes want to shake some of my young women students as much as I want to shake Jane Purdy -- they are no less, and probably more, boy-crazy, sex-obsessed and self-doubting. But more positively, despite
their devotion to the girl-meets-boy plot, these books offer a narrative of self-discovery and familial support that I still find moving. Jane, for example, who starts out believing that she "means well, but always manages to do the wrong thing," develops the confidence to assert that "she would be Jane Purdy and nobody else ... Maybe if she continued to be herself, Stan would like her again. And if he didn't, there was nothing she could do about it." (She is, of course, immediately rewarded with Stan's ID bracelet.)
In the Beany Malone books, loving families and supportive friends routinely steal the stage from Beany's unpredictable, on-and-off boyfriend. In "Make a Wish for Me," Beany risks high-school popularity to befriend new-in-town bad-girl Dulcie, who confesses emotionally, "You're the first girl that ever -- ever offered to give me a hand." Beany's family rallies round when she gets stood up for the "Heart Hop": Her brother ropes in the boy next door as her date; her sister gives her a manicure and lends her a formal dress, her stepmother a fur cape. The world outside might be cold -- the Malones, who lived somewhere in the Midwest, were always driving through slush and snow -- but the family circle was warm and safe.
It was also, of course, a limited and homogeneous circle: white, Christian, middle class, suburban and weirdly matriarchal. Boys existed only as objects of desire; men as largely offstage fathers. Class conflict made frequent appearances -- girls from the "wrong side of the tracks," like Dulcie, caused our heroines a lot of trouble -- but racial and religious diversity were non-existent.
The first cracks in this smooth surface, appearing in the early 1960s, kept the gender balance the same, merely supplying feistier heroines: Louise Fitzhugh's notebook-wielding, determined "Harriet the Spy" (1964); E. L. Konigsburg's Claudia, in "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" (1967), who runs away to Manhattan with her little brother to live in the Metropolitan Museum. Then the heat of the 1960s -- the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, Civil Rights, environmentalism -- began to make itself felt even through the cool, whitewashed stone walls of the children's room. The protagonist of Nat Hentoff's "I'm Really Dragged, But Nothing Gets Me Down" (1967) has to decide whether to resist the Vietnam War draft. Paul Zindel, in "My Darling, My Hamburger" (1969), considers teenage pregnancy and abortion from the point of view of both the girl and the boy involved. The young African-American hero of Virginia Hamilton's "M.C. Higgins, the Great" (1974) struggles to protect his Ohio Hills home from the menace of strip mining. Suddenly, the boys, too, had stories to tell, and authors willing to tell them; the heyday of the girl-oriented "family story" was over.
Nobody knows exactly when the "Especially for Girls" bookcase began or when it was dismantled. The librarian of my childhood, long since retired, thinks it was the work of a librarian trying to "create interest" in some slow-moving books: a Miss McHugh, her first name lost to posterity, who worked at the library for 40 years. But I always think of Judy Blume's notorious "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret" (1970), a girl book itself, as spelling the real end of the fantasy world Miss McHugh's shelves enshrined. Blume's characters expressed their worries about boys, bras and menstruation in blunter, more direct language than Jane Purdy or Beany Malone could have imagined. Short and to the point, Blume's books were the first paperbacks I remember in the children's room: inexpensive to purchase, easy to read.
Beverly Cleary and Lenora Mattingly Weber had brought their readers into a safe, cozy world; Louise Fitzhugh and E. L. Konigsburg into a quirky, literary one. "Are You There, God?" transported its reader nowhere; it was as though Blume was speaking directly from the fifth-grade classrooms where her books passed covertly (their candor causing teachers and parents unease) from girl to girl. Blume evoked the very world from which I thought books were supposed to take you away. Soon I fled to the main library, where for a while I lost myself in the adult library's equivalent of "especially for girls" -- the gothic mysteries of Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney -- before discovering the more respectable but equally girl-filled world of Victorian fiction (where I have remained ever since).
I'm sometimes tempted to blame my childhood reading for encouraging stereotypically feminine traits such as passivity, introversion and dependence. Yet I remain mostly grateful to the mysterious Miss McHugh for introducing me to the joys of fantasy, and for the belief that girls and books are meant for each other.