Origins of ordinary things: Drinking straws

Metallic straws are replacing plastic straws because of their pollution to the environment. Net photo.

Drinking straws represent one of the oldest eating utensils ever made, but the popularity only came with the industrial revolution of 1800s, introduction of rye grass straw, and later industrial produced paper straws. 

According to Eating Utensils, their ability to transfer a beverage from its container, via short tube to the user’s mouth provided some clear benefits in some cases when drinking directly from containers is not desirable or effective. Also, one of the most deciding factors that gave the drinking straw the popularity that it has today was fashion and eating tradition that came in 19th Century Europe and United States.


A man named Marvin Stone, according to National Geographic, was the first to file a patent for a drinking straw, in 1888. The Smithsonian Institute cites a widely touted legend saying Stone was drinking a mint julep on a hot summer day in 1880 when his piece of rye grass, then used as a straw, began to disintegrate. Stone, a paper cigarette holder manufacturer, decided he could make something better.


He wrapped strips of paper around a pencil, glued them together, and soon had an early prototype of paper drinking straws. He patented his design in 1888, and by 1890, his factory Stone Industrial was mass producing them.


It wasn’t until the 1930s that straws gained the ability to bend. Watching his daughter struggle to easily reach her milkshake through a straight paper straw, inventor Joseph Friedman inserted a screw into the straw, wrapped floss around the screw’s grooves, and took out the screw. With indentations, the straw could easily bend without breaking. Friedman patented his invention and created the Flex-Straw Company to churn out his design.

Hospitals were among the first to embrace bendable straws, because they allowed patients to drink while lying in bed.

In the decades that followed, the popular paper straw found its way into sodas and milkshakes across America.

As the world now struggles to recover from its plastic pollution, corporations, municipalities, and even national governments are proposing and implementing bans on plastic straws. Some companies have jumped into the fray by manufacturing metal and glass straws that environmentally conscious consumers can buy for personal use, though they lack the disposability of paper and plastic from which restaurants benefit.

The same businesses that once benefitted from public excitement over plastic are increasingly feeling public pressure to use alternatives.

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