The Surprising History of the Drinking Straw
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↥ Illustration by Ariel Wills (MFA IL 2024)
Nowadays, the drinking straw provides a pleasing drinking experience essentially everywhere we go to eat—restaurants, fast food places, coffee shops. I thought that exploring how this seemingly simple technology evolved to become loved and used by many would be a worthwhile endeavor.
In the late 1800s, people were seeking ways to have a more satisfying drinking experience. Prior to 1888, hollow reeds or ryegrass were used as materials for drinking straws, yet these materials sometimes added an odor or unpleasant taste to a cold drink.  Moreover, after repeated use, the reeds and grass often cracked or grew musty. This ignited an interest in a new invention—one that could ensure a delightful taste and smell. Marvin Stone, a young inventor from Washington, DC, found a need and researched ways to solve this problem. His first prototypes were made by winding strips of paper around a pencil and gluing it together. The now-widespread drinking straw was patented on January 3, 1888, by the inventor under the name “Artificial Straw.” This original, marketed drinking straw was intended by Stone to “provide a cheap, durable, and unobjectionable substitute for the natural straws commonly used for the administration of medicines and beverages.” 
But alas, these artificial straws would become soggy after repeated use, too, so Stone came up with a new, more durable material: manila paper coated with paraffin. This material choice enabled what many had long dreamed about: a truly satisfying straw-drinking experience. Stone’s understanding of how small details could have far-reaching consequences created a significant impact outside of beverages too. Fashioning this material into a cylinder by developing the spiral-winding process, this technique was later applied to numerous other production processes such as the winding of electronic components.  Thus, the winding method not only improved the drinking straw’s cycle of technology but, unintentionally, other industries as well.
Interestingly, the method of manufacturing also saw changes. According to the Stone Straw Corporation website, in 1906, the first straw-producing machine was built to machine-wind straws, making the hand-winding process obsolete. Machine-winding works by spacing the straws evenly across a flat plate, which has slots cut in it. The straws roll into the slots, which are next to a separate metal plate with metal pins extending from it. The pins are aligned with the slots, and as the straws roll up into them, the pins are inserted into the straws, and a specialized crimp pattern bends the straws without closing off the hole. This process, an innovative and thoughtful means to production, would enable straws to be mass-produced and adopted by mainstream consumers in the decades leading up to the latter half of the 1940s. However, this was not the end of the cycle of development for the drinking straw. In 1937, Joseph B. Friedman was awarded a patent for his “drinking tube.” Its purpose was “to provide a soda straw with a flexible section positioned so that the tube may be bent during use without substantially reducing the diameter of the straw.” 
It wasn’t until the late 1940s that plastic straws became widespread. They were made from polypropylene, a plastic known for its durability, which again made drinking easier. Friedman continued developing his invention, and, in 1951, he patented a more refined version of his initial idea, which is now known as the “flexible drinking straw.” This invention eliminated some of the more annoying issues relating to his initial patent, improving the product experience. Again users appear to have wanted more pleasant, enjoyable drinking experiences. The drinking straw now became an important part of the drinking experience for many, a simple technology embedded in our culture. However, a series of social movements led to changes, and the drinking straw’s materiality has since seen controversy.
In the early 21st century, environmental concerns relating to plastic pollution and climate change led to the development of compostable and reusable straws. On average, Americans use around 500 million plastic straws every day, leading to plastic pollution and waste that affects ecosystems and wildlife. Plastic straws are non-biodegradable and release toxic chemicals into the ground when temperature shifts occur, creating environmental issues. To address this, many places have implemented reusable, stainless steel, glass, and bamboo straws.  Though this may make prior materials obsolete, and newer, more sustainable alternatives more widespread, most restaurants, coffee shops, and businesses still use plastic drinking straws, thus making the obsolescence of the plastic drinking straw inevitable, but not immediate.
The drinking straw is purely technomic, as it provides a utilitarian function: ingesting beverages through a tube. This object is also a symbol of how dependent our culture is on petroleum as a material resource. Replicable and mass-produced, plastic products have become mainstream and are the source of numerous environmental issues. Value networks supporting mass production incentivize this practice as a worthwhile investment while disregarding its environmental effects. However, it seems that environmental concerns will now shape the further evolution and embellishment of the fascinating drinking straw. A seemingly simple, cheap material good, the drinking straw is the result of a network of processes that speak to the complex technological systems of humankind.
By looking at the object, one can explore the possibilities of considering it in conceptual terms, including what functions it has based on analysis and observation. By having the technology in our hands and without researching the history of the object, we become scientists constructing hypotheses based on a limited dataset. With this approach, one can imagine new possibilities. Furthermore, by researching the history of an object, a more sequential process of discovery, creation, and development can be seen. One can also understand exactly what needs it addressed, what tasks it made easier, and how it has evolved economically, socially, and culturally. History informs us exactly which forces, ideologies, or political choices ultimately shaped the intriguing evolution of the drinking straw.
By delving deeper into the history of such a ubiquitous yet polarizing object, one can better understand the power of a single piece of technology. All the little things we use from day to day hold meaning far beyond their form and material. They are rich with surprising histories that give a window into the inventiveness and creativity of individual people behind every small detail. Artifacts have agency and every invention has gone through countless technological iterations. Ultimately, with greater care and consideration for the things we use and never think about, we can foster a healthier relationship with everyday life and appreciate the evolution
of human-made things.
1. Ben Ikenson, “Drinking Straw.” In Patents: Ingenious Inventions, How They Work and How They Came to Be (London: Black Dog and
Leventhal Publishers, 2004), 87.
2. Marvin C. Stone, Artificial Straw, patent issued January 3, 1888.
3. Ikenson, “Drinking Straw.” 88.
4. Joseph B. Friedman, Drinking Tube, patent issued September 28, 1937.
5. See “The Epic Story of Reusable Straws.” The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development | Uniting for a Sustainable Future, July 11, 2022. https://interfaithsustain.com/reusable-straws/.
Raúl Falcón is passionate about design, product development, and technology.