This brief history of plastic straws looks at their early uses in ancient times through to the modern day. Today plastic straws are found in many kitchen cupboards or draw. They are so popular that they are readily associated with most takeaway meals the world over. Increasing the environmental impact of plastic straws is an issue we should all know more about and act to change. Amongst growing consumer concern and plastic straw bans their time may be numbered.
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 choosing eco-friendly plastic straw alternatives. Or even better questioning if you need one at all.
Nature often inspires the best human inventions, and we can see the 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 sources1”
The first notable usage of straws in history by humans
The Sumerians were an ancient civilization populating what is now modern-day Southern Iraq. History tells us they were also one of the first civilizations 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.
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.
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 Museum8, 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.
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 drinks. 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 straw2”
Dried leaves of the yerba mate plant steeped in hot water brew Mate in South America. The result is a hot drink a bit like tea. Traditionally, Mate is drunk from a hollow gourd through metal 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 in 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 traveled 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.
At 30 years old 300 guests celebrated the then most famous author in the world in style. There were paintings in his honor, a bust of himself hanging over a balcony and an eagle soaring over the bust's head. All of which welcomed him into a world of American hospitality, and drink.
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...
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 from 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.”
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.
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
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 tumblers3. For that reason, customers came to chose to drink their soda through straws by preference and default.
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 defined the ideal straw as 8.5 inches long and with a diameter small enough to prevent lemon seeds from getting stuck, thereby reducing the flow of liquid.
He later combined his paper straw with a little wax to prevent it from going soggy. An experienced paper cigarette manufacturer, he used his knowledge to start mass-producing paper straws in 1906 in his cigarette factory. It's said Stone was making up to two million a day at his peak.
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.
Hospitals used rigid glass plastic tubes 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. To really build the business he involved his wife. Selling to restaurants came later with the resulting growth.
“arguably the most significant technological achievement of the twentieth century”
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 prowess5.
America experienced an economic boom following the war. As a result, consumers looked 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 socialize together and spend their increasing wealth.
To-go cups quickly became normal fare with burgers 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.
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 of modern-day consumerism. Of course, naturally, the plastic industry happily complied producing more and more of the things to serve this growing market.
Unlike their paper or reed-based counterparts, plastic straws are durable. Plastic straws, no matter how long left in the glass of liquid, kept their shape.
The transparency provided a novelty factor. With candy stripes, supersize suckers, and twists and turns all finding their moments, by the 1960s plastic straws had more or less replaced their paper counterparts.
The plastic straw, a simple hollow tube, is an invention of convenience. Straws helped us imbibe more conveniently. As a tool to filter sediment in beer straws can be seen early in history aptly performing this task. 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.
Many straws end up in our seas and waterways.
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.
Always disposed of after the duration of a drink, straws are the ultimate throw-away item. Straws almost certainly make the very simple act of drinking perhaps a little easier. At the same time, we’ve also created an almighty amount of waste.
Incredibly a massive 8 million tons of plastic6 (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. And alongside this rise in awareness more people choosing to use reusable straws.
In 2015 a now-famous video of a sea turtle having a plastic straw removed from his nose went viral. A huge boost to the awareness of the harm plastic straws causes followed.
In 2018 the EU announced it was banning plastic straws, cutlery, and plated by 2021. Straws consumed to date will still be with us for a very long time yet. Yet, time appears to be nearly up for the plastic straw.
Written with love by TRVST to inspire us all to act for a better world.
|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.|
|Man The Drinker, Patrick McGovern, February 2010|
|Disposable America. A history of modern capitalism from the perspective of the straw. Seriously. Alexis C Madrigal, The Atlantic, 21 June 2018.|
|Mate (drink), wikipedia|
|By Design: World War II, plastics and NPE, Glenn Beall, 09 April 2009.|
|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|
|Bread and Beer, Mary M. Voigt, Solomon H Katz, Penn Museum|
|Plaque depicting a copulating couple drinking beer, Babylonia, Israel Museum|
|Leverage Points for Reducing Single-use Plastics, Eunomia, Chris Sherrington Chiarina Darrah Steven Watson Joss Winter, 30th March 2017|