The Invention Of The Humble Straw: Reeds, Cigars, And Milkshakes
Colorful plastic straws: One of our oldest eating utensils. (Photo by JOKER / Walter G. Allgöwer/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Until a year or so ago, you probably never gave any consideration to your drinking straw. It was just there, providing you with a simple tool to transport the liquid in your cup to your mouth without the onerous burden of moving. In the past few years, however, you may have heard the alarming news that disposable plastic straws are filling the oceans and killing adorable sea turtles. We're thinking about the future of drinking straws now more than ever before, but have you thought about their past? In case you haven't, here is a brief history of the humble straw.
Ancient engraving showing Sumerians using drinking straws. (okstraw.com)
Archeologists Have Unearthed Ancient Drinking Straws
It might seem like a uniquely modern product, but drinking straws were invented at least 5,000 years ago. In some ancient Sumerian tombs, archaeologists have found drinking straws made out of gold and lapis lazuli. It seems the ancient Sumerians were eco-friendly (and lazy) long before we were.
Reeds and other naturally hollow plant stalks were used for drinking straws. (plantsfordallas.com)
More than half a world away and a few thousand years later, even greener straws were invented. In Argentina, for example, wooden straws dating back 3,000 have been discovered, among others straws used by other South American cultures. Anthropologists believe that most straws were fashioned out of reeds or other naturally hollow plants.
Straws were used because beer and other beverages had sediment. (pubculture.beer)
Why Use A Straw In The First Place?
Why would our ancestors even need drinking straws in the first place? We can, after all, accomplish the same goal by simply putting a cup to our lips. It turns out our ancestors weren't as lazy as we are; they were just consuming different beverages.
Two of the most common refreshments were tea and beer, which aren't exactly ancient artifacts, but they didn't come in bags and cans back then. Tea was made by boiling twigs, berries, leaves, and roots, all of it just floating around in the water, leaving lots of debris in the tea. A straw was the ancient tea-lover's only hope to avoid swallowing a twig.
The same held true for beer. Ancient brewing techniques left large amounts of sediment that settled at the bottom, waiting to jump down your throat like a gross busybody the moment you tipped your glass. Straws allowed the drinker to skim off the good stuff at the top.
Drinking from a straw was more polite than tipping back your cup. (core77.com)
Straws In Modernity
Once invented, straws never went out of style. Though they're primarily a tool of the cheap convenience food industry today, straws were used by the upper class in the courts of Europe in the 1700s and 1800s because it was viewed as a more polite and dignified way to drink. The most common type of straw at this time was a stalk of rye, a type of grass with a naturally hollow stem. It tasted pretty funny, but such was the price of decorum. That all changed, however, with ...
Rye straws and mint juleps didn't mix for Marvin Stone. (laidbackgardener.blog)
Marvin Stone, Mint Juleps, And Cigars
In the 1880s, a Washington, D.C.—area businessman and entrepreneur named Marvin Stone was enjoying his favorite drink, a mint julep. He grew annoyed, as he always did when he sipped his mint julep through a rye straw, that the plant-based straw degraded quickly, leaving gritty residue in his drink and on his lips. The rye taste also detracted from his refreshing minty drink. That got him thinking about cigars, an industry in which he often did business. He wondered if he could make a straw out of paper by wrapping it around a pencil and gluing it in place before allowing it to dry, much in the same way paper is wrapped around cigars. Not only did it work, it worked so well that he patented his straws in 1888 and eventually built a machine that automated the straw-making process, allowing him to build a paper straw empire.
A young girl drinking a milkshake like this one inspired the bendy straw. (newsela.com)
Straws Get Bent
Stone's paper straws served their purpose for the next several decades, and it wasn't until 1937 that the next big straw innovation took place. That year, a Bay Area inventor named Joseph B. Freidman took his young daughter out for a milkshake, but the little girl had trouble reaching the straw poking out of the tall glass on the counter. Freidman's solution was to push a screw into the straw, wind dental floss around the grooves, and then remove the screw, resulting in a number of creases in the paper that allowed the straw to bend. Friedman patented his bendy straws in 1937.
Plastic straws were the go-to straw for decades. (berkyortho.com)
The Plastic Straw
The plastic straws that have become such an environmental blight were a product of the plastic craze of the 1960s. Despite the whole sea turtle thing, plastic straws offered a number of advantages over paper ones. They didn't get soggy or tear, they were cheaper to produce in mass quantity, and they could be washed out and reused, though no one really did this. Plastic straws were the industry standard for the next 40 years.
Many restaurants are switching to paper straws as an eco-friendly alternative to plastic. (reviewed.com)
Plastic Straws = Bad, Paper Straws = Good
As single-use, disposable plastic products such as plastic straws overwhelm landfills and pollute the oceans, the environmentally conscious have begun brainstorming solutions to the plastic straw problem. Sure, we could just forgo straws completely and drink our beverages via gravity, but many people (including those with disabilities that make drinking without a straw difficult) are reluctant to give up on straws. Reusable metal straws and biodegradable paper straws have made a comeback in the last two years, and experts in the industry feel strongly that people will never completely eliminate straws from their lives.