History of Plastic Straws – How Did They Become So Popular?

This brief history of plastic straws looks their early uses in ancient times through to the modern day. Today plastic straws are so popular that they are readily associated with most takeaway meals and are found in many a kitchen cupboard or draw. Increasing the environmental impact of plastic straws is an issue we should all know more about and act to change. 

Here TRVST presents a little-potted history of the drinking straw, largely for fun and because it’s interesting 🙂

The environmental impact of plastic straws is increasingly a global issue. You can take action by asking for non-plastic straws in restaurants and bars. Or even better questioning if you need one at all.

Drinking straws in nature

Nature often inspires the best human inventions, and we can see inspiration for the straw in insects. The proboscis is a long tubular part of the anatomy found in many insects. In nature butterflies and moths use their proboscis to suck nutrition from flowers, fruit and other food sources. Therefore Biologists at the Royal Society note “the proboscis represents a key innovation [like a drinking straw] for exploiting a vast range of nutritional sources”[1]

Proposcis Of A Butterfly With Flower
Nature often inspires human progress. Here in nature, we see the proboscis of an insect being used to suck nectar from a flower in bloom. Nature was there first and kicks off the history of the plastic straw. Photo Credit: Pixabay.

The first notable usage of straws by humans

Humans too have had a long history with Straws. One of the first noted human uses of straws was captured around 2600 BC in a mural [2] of the Sumerians.

The Sumerians were an ancient civilisation populating what is now modern-day Southern Iraq. History tells us they were also one of the first civilisations to drink beer. To do so they drank it out of clay jars using reed straws to suck up the alcoholic liquid below the layers of sediment that had formed on top of the brew.

The ancient Sumerians are seen here in an ancient plaque using straws to drink from a clay pot of what was most likely beer.

 

Straws in depictions of this ritual are long utensils. People sat around heavy clay pots of beer in the middle of a room and the straws connected them to the alcohol contained within. Much like a communal gathering of the time and almost certainly a convivial social occasion. Similar to drinking beer today.

Straws elsewhere in history

A little later the association with imbibement gets a little racier as depicted on a Babylonian clay plaque from around 2000 BC. The plaque, shown at the Israel Museum[3], depicts a woman and man engaged in a sexual act. We can see a woman leaning forward drinking beer from a straw. And so our love affair, quite literally, with the straw began.

Terracotta plaque depicting a copulating couple drinking beer.
Terracotta plaque depicting a copulating couple drinking beer. Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem


Patrick McGovern is a biomolecular archaeologist and researcher and the Penn Museum. His work “the history of Man, The Drinker” looks at our history with alcoholic drink. He notes that similar methods for making and drinking cereal brews can be observed in Mesopotamian barley beer, Chinese rice wine and American corn chica. The common thread?


“A large open-mouthed jar, and then drink[ing] from the same vessel with a long straw” [4]

Elsewhere in the world in South America, Mate is created from the dried leaves of the yerba mate plant steeped in hot water. The result is a hot drink a bit like tea. Traditionally Mate is drunk through a metal straw from a hollow gourd.

Mate is still popular today and the national drink of Argentina. If you like you can even buy metal Mate drinking straws online. [5]

Reed Straws

Leaving behind the ancient chapter in the history of plastic straws we move on to to the more modern precursor, the reed straw. Reed straws made out of ryegrass became popular in the 1880s. Farmers already growing ryegrass as a crop for animal feed bleached, hand cut, and sorted these straws. New cash crop in hand they sold the reeds across markets in the US and they became a popular side hustle of the time.

Charles Dickens played a key role popularising reed straws across the Atlantic. With words as his craft, he narrated their benefit to a wider audience through storytelling.

The author of works including Oliver Twist and the Pickwick Papers famously travelled to the United States in 1842. It is said that New York greeted him with the grandest ball the city had ever seen on Valentine’s.[6] 

At 30 years old 300 guests celebrated the then most famous author in the world in style. There were paintings in his honour, a bust of himself hanging over a balcony and an eagle soaring over the busts head. All of which welcomed him into a world of American hospitality, and drink. 

Spreading the word

It was Dicken’s experience of American hospitality that introduced him boozy tumblers full of ice complete with reed straws. The straws providing easy access to the liquid. He later re-tells this experience in his 1884 novel, Martin Chuzzlewit.

In the book, Martin, the lead character, has a friend join him on a trip to the USA and serve him up a Sherry Cobbler.

“Martin took the glass with an astonished look; applied his lips to the reed; and cast up his eyes once in ecstasy. He paused no more until the goblet was drained to the last drop.”

Innovative yes, however, there was a problem, Reed straws, however, didn’t hold their shape well and became soft and mushy if left in Sherry Cobblers. Or for that matter any other drink, for too long.

As we further tell the history of the plastic straw this becomes the central problem to solve. Our story progresses with Human ingenuity seeking to create a more robust drinking utensil…

Earliest patents related to the history of plastic straws

In 1870 Eugene Chapin of Missouri filed a patent for “Improvement in drinking-tubes for invalids.” His invention was a rubber tube or other flexible tube securely attached to the drinking vessel with a clamp spring. This innovation allowed people to more easily access their fluids, presumably from bed in the hospital.

A few years later, in 1879, William Brown of Connecticut filed a patent for a “Utensil for Mixing and Imbibing Liquids.” Brown’s invention was a “hollow bodied tubular stem through which liquid can be drawn.” Cleverly this invention included a sieve at the bottom to prevent large particles being drawn up into the straw. As a result, it also provided the added advantage of being able to “crush solid substances such as sugar.”

Two early patents and their inventions ref the history of the plastic straw
Pages of two early patents filed relating to the history of the plastic straw. On the left, we see Chapin’s drinking tube for use by invalids and on the right Brown’s utensil for mixing and imbibing liquids.

 

Soda Fountains

A bit later American soda fountains played a key role in driving the popularity of the straw. Initially, we note, conceived as an attempt to replicate mineral waters that bubbled up from the earth. Soda Fountains quickly became popular and important social gathering points in American towns.

American Soda Fountain from 1925.
American soda fountains were popular gathering places. This picture is taken in Tampa Florida circa 1925. Straws were used at soda fountains to prevent the spread of disease. Photo: No known attribution.

 

First seen as early as 1806 in Connecticut soda fountains really took off in the early 1900s as mechanical innovations, including refrigeration, allowed them to serve cold sweet carbonated drinks.[7]

To begin with, people typically shared a glass or metal cup to drink at soda fountains. Health concerns around cleanliness alongside the flu and polio epidemics caused concern about this communal way of drinking. 

To avoid the spreading of germs soda fountain drinkers used straws which improved the sanitary safety of shared tumblers. For that reason, customers came to chose to drink their soda through straws by preference and default.

Paper Straws

The filing of a patent for the first paper straw happened in 1888 moving the history of the plastic straw on a few notches. The legend goes that American inventor Marvin Stone was drinking a mint julep, a tasty cocktail of bourbon and mint. An 18th-century version of the Sumerian’s Reed Straws completed the serving of this ice cold thirst quenching drink on ice.

Naturally, Marvin’s straw was also all about solving a problem as is the case with most good inventions. The problem? His reed in his julep quickly became soggy and began to lose shape.

To solve this problem, the legend goes, he took a pencil and wrapped it with paper which he glued together. As it set he removed the pencil and what emerged formed a prototype of the very first paper drinking straw. Stone also defined the ideal straw as 8.5 inches long and with a diameter small enough to prevent lemon seeds from getting stuck in the straw and reducing the flow of liquid.

He later combined his paper straw with a little wax to prevent it going soggy. An experienced paper cigarette manufacturer, he used his knowledge to start to mass produce the paper straws in 1906 in his cigarette factory.  It’s said Stone was making up to two million a day at his peak.

Bendy Straws

It took another 50 years after Stone’s invention of the paper straw before Joseph Friedman came across another problem. The Smithsonian Institute talks of him watching his daughter struggling to easily reach her milkshake through a paper straw back in the 1930s. 

Another clever inventor, Friedman took a screw and inserted it into the paper straw. Seeking to make the drink easier to get to he wound cotton around the outside of the paper straw. This, in turn, created ridges in the paper. By removing the screw the newly formed indents allowed the straw to easily bend. And the bendy straw was born.

In 1939 he created the Flex-straw Company, incorporated in California, to manufacture his invention. 

Rigid glass plastic tubes were used in Hospitals at the time. In 1947 he sold his first bendy straw order to a hospital as a replacement. The outcome was that the bendy straw’s first outing allowed patients in bed to more easily drink lying down. Consequently, he only started selling to restaurants after his wife got involved to really build the business.

“arguably the most significant technological achievement of the twentieth century”

Michael Fabricant, British MP – a relative of Friedman’s, talking about the invention of the bendy straw according to Wikipedia.

Plastic Straws

Consumer plastics became a big thing after the second world war. As the war ended the many factories that were churning out plastic to service the war machine needed to find new applications for their manufacturing lines and prowess. [8]

America experienced an economic boom following the war. As a result, consumers were looking for new and innovative ways to spend their newly earned cash.

It’s noteworthy that plastic straws, easy and cheaper to make, really took off alongside the huge growth of the fast food industry which served a need for Americans to socialise together and spend their increasing wealth.

To-go cups quickly became normal fare with burger and fries. The plastic lids with crosshairs tore paper straws. Because of this design fault and now with a possible plastic alternative, fast food restaurants the world over also began to serve soda and pop in disposable cups with plastic straws. It followed that plastic straws quickly became a ubiquitous part of everyday life.

On the wave of fast food

The rise of giants including Coca Cola, McDonald’s and Milkshake bars all also played a significant part in the history of the plastic straw. So it came about that plastic straws accompanied each soda or frothy milkshake worldwide in these high growth bastions modern day consumerism. Of course, naturally, the plastic industry happily complied producing more and more of the things to serve this growing market.

McDonalds meal with paper cup and plastic straw
Plastic straws really took off in popularity alongside the growth of the American and Worldwide fast food industries. McDonald’s meals almost always come with a paper cup of soda and a plastic straw. Photo Credit: Chaitanya on Pexels.

 

Unlike their paper of reed based counterparts, plastic straws are durable. Additionally, they keep their shape no matter how long they are left in a glass of liquid.

The transparency provided a novelty factor. With candy stripes, super size suckers and twists and turns all finding their moments, by the 1960s plastic straws had more or less replaced their paper counterparts.

What next in the history of the plastic straw?

The plastic straw, a simple hollow tube, is an invention of convenience. Straws helped us imbibe more conveniently. At the beginning of the history of plastic straws, we can see the application of this when straws were used to filter the sediment in beer. Through to later times, straws continued to aid convenience by helping those in the hospital more easily access their drinks from bed. Straws even helped to prevent the spread of disease during the rise of American soda fountains.

Today’s plastic straws, however, have become the ultimate throw away item.

Did you know we go through a staggering 25.3 billion plastic straws in Europe every year? [9]. And an estimated 500 million straws a day in the US.

Plastic Straws and the Environment

As a result, many straws end up in our seas and waterways because they are often not able to be recycled.

Science suggests that somewhat scarily every plastic straw ever produced is still with us today in one form or another. We can safely assume that the history of the plastic straw moving forward is likely to be a really long one.

Straws are used often only for the duration of a drink and always disposed of. We’ve almost certainly made the very simple act of drinking perhaps a little easier. At the same time, we’ve also created an almighty amount of waste.

A massive 8 million tons of plastic [10] (straws and more) enters our oceans each year.

There’s little question that the environmental impact of plastic straws leaves a lot to be desired. More recently we’ve seen an increase in environmental campaigning to phase out plastic straws.

In 2015 a now famous video of a sea turtle having a plastic straw removed from his nose went viral. It is claimed by many that it is largely responsible for the increased awareness of the environmental harm plastic pollution straws can cause.  

In 2018 the EU announced it was banning plastic straws, cutlery and plated by 2021. Whereas the straws we’ve conumed to date are going to be with us for a very long time yet at TRVST we hope that their  future days are numbered

Written with love by TRVST to inspire us all to act for a better world.

Colourful bendy plastic straws
Colourful bendy plastic straws are still popular. However, their impact on the environment is more keenly felt today than ever before. The history of the plastic straw might be most aptly closed by their demise as bans take hold and people are more aware of the environmental harm caused by single-use plastics and seek alternatives. Photo Credit: Vox Efx on Flickr CC BY 2.0.

 

More reading:

Take action by asking for non-plastic straws
The environmental impact of plastic straws


Sources:

[1] Butterfly proboscis: combining a drinking straw with a nanosponge facilitated diversification of feeding habits, Daria Monaenkova , Matthew S. Lehnert , Taras Andrukh , Charles E. Beard , Binyamin Rubin , Alexander Tokarev , Wah-Keat Lee , Peter H. Adler , and Konstantin G. Kornev, 17 August 2011.

[2] Bread and Beer, Mary M. Voigt, Solomon H Katz, Penn Museum

[3] Plaque depicting a copulating couple drinking beer, Babylonia, Israel Museum

[4] Man The Drinker, Patrick McGovern, February 2010]

[5] Mate (drink), wikipedia

[6] When Charles Dicken fell out with America, BBC, 14th February 2012

[7] Disposable America. A history of modern capitalism from the perspective of the straw. Seriously. Alexis C Madrigal, The Atlantic, 21 June 2018.

[8] By Design: World War II, plastics and NPE, Glenn Beall, 09 April 2009.

[9] Leverage Points for Reducing Single-use Plastics, Eunomia, Chris Sherrington Chiarina Darrah Steven Watson Joss Winter, 30th March 2017

[10]  Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean. Jenna R. Jambeck, Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, Theodore R. Siegler, Miriam Perryman, Anthony Andrady, Ramani Narayan, Kara Lavender Law. Science, vol. 347, no. 6223, 13 Feb. 2015, pp. 768–771, doi:10.1126/science.1260352.

 

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