You’ve sipped at it, bite it, bent it, and spit wads of paper out it, but you’ve probably never thought about when a straw was first used. The simple little tube had a humble beginning, and even today it has managed to morph into an endless array of different shapes and sizes. Here’s how the drinking straw got its start.
The Straight Straw
The drinking straw as we know it today is an older invention than one might think. Its birth took place on January 3, 1888, and was invented by a man named Marvin Stone who owned a paper cigarette holder company. Straws during this time were rather organic and were made from a tube of natural rye grass. Stone didn’t appreciate having his mint julep taste like grass as it degraded away, so he came up with a better alternative. He took a piece of paper and wrapped it around a pencil, then he glued the ends of the paper together to form a tube. But Stone didn’t stop there and refined his straw further. By using manila paper and coating the paper in paraffin wax, he came up with a better and stronger straw that could withstand all that sipping. He patented this particular model in 1888, and in two years, he was selling more straws than his original business, cigarette holders. The straws as we now them today, minus the paper tube portion of course, had begun.
Of course straws have been used throughout history using natural things that grew, but no one had yet come up with an invention to make it better until Stone came along. In 1906, another revolution occurred when a rolling machine was invented and replaced the hand rolling way of production. This paved the way for the straw to enter the industrial age.
By the time 1930’s rolled around, another important modification of the straight straw was set to happen. Joseph Friedman saw how his daughter had trouble drinking a milkshake. His solution was to take that straight straw and give it a bend to allow it to get to the drinker’s mouth. He took the straight straw and put in a screw. Then he used dental floss and wrapped it around the ridges of the screw in the straw. After he removed the screw, he was left with a nice bend in the straw. He patented his design in 1937, and the “bendy” straw made its way onto the scene.
Modifications to the simple paper straw Stone had invented weren’t even close to being done. Paper straws had been popular up until the 1960’s, but there was something new gaining traction–the plastic straw. By the middle of the 1970’s the paper straw was no more. With the new plastic straws, even more innovation was set to take place.
Sometime around the 1940’s, a glassblower made a mistake, and wound up with a tube of glass in a ball. Kids, as they are, saw a use for the mistake and began to drink out of it, according to Fun-Time International, the current manufacturer of this type of straw. It became the Krazy Straw, and it wasn’t made out of potentially broken glass but plastic instead. The current owner of Fun-Time International, Erik Lipson is even crazy about straws. He bought out the Krazy Straw company in 1989 and invented the Krazy glasses drinking straws in 1984, the ones where you drink through the shape of eyeglasses. He has over 100 patents on drinking straw design.
The Future of Straws
There have been flavored straws, scooped straws (e.g. Slurpee), super wide straws, and straws bent into any shape imaginable. There doesn’t seem to be any end to the limitless design possibilities available for the straw. Even the paper straw is trying to make a comeback thanks to a company called Aardvark Paper Drinking Straws. They are using paper materials and glue that didn’t exist before to make paper straws that are able to withstand the onslaught of liquids, and unlike plastic straws, they break down in a landfill. They even have a bendable straw called the Eco-Flex.
Straws have taken on another role other than for the pure enjoyment of a beverage. They have become a life-saving device. A Swiss company called Vestergaard Frandsen has developed the LifeStraw, a straw that filters bacteria and contaminants from drinking water, making it safe to drink. It’s a bit more sophisticated than a regular straw and was introduced in 2005 as an emergency response tool following a natural disaster. It is a thick tube that can be placed in a water source and water can be sucked, just like a straw, directly from that source.
Now that drinking straws are a $3 billion industry, it’s safe to assume the innovations won’t stop anytime soon.
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