The Amazing History and the Strange Invention of the Bendy Straw

More

After 7,000 years of "drinking tubes" across many civilizations, two men reinvented the straw in the last 150 years. The first made it modern. The second made it bend.

sketch bendy straw.jpg

Image from the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center: An ur-sketch of the bendy straw. Date not known.

Marvin Chester Stone was feeling thirsty. Winding down after a long day's work, he sipped a mint julep at his home off 9th Street in Washington, D.C. But something was getting in his way. More particularly, something was getting in his drink. It was an unwelcome reedy residue. It was his straw.

His straw was shedding.

This was the 1880s, when gentlemen sipped their whiskey through long tubes made of natural rye that lent a grassy flavor to whatever drink they plopped in. For many centuries, it was not uncommon for a sot to order a gin and tonic and wind up drinking a gin and tonic infused with natural grass flavors. Stone didn't have much patience when it came to non-mint plants floating around in his mint julep, and did something radical that billions of people around the world have appreciated in the 130 years since. He reinvented the straw.

Where great ideas really come from. A special report

In his first try, he wound paper around a pencil to make a thin tube, slid out the pencil from one end, and applied glue between the strips. Voila: paper straw! Also: glue? This was a halfway solution. Stone refined it by building a machine to wind paper into a tube and coat the outside with a paraffin wax to keep it from melting in bourbon. He patented the product in 1888. Today, Marvin Chester Stone is considered the godfather of the straw.

But who drinks soda or water from wax-paper tubes these days? Approximately nobody. The man who invented the bendy straw -- the straw you know with the flexible elbow that bends like a tiny accordion -- wasn't born until about two decades years after Stone's seminal blow-up over grass getting into his mint julep. But before we move forward a few decades, let's go back a few millennia.

Artificial straw mold

5,000 YEARS OF STRAWS

Here is a short history of the drinking straw in 30 seconds. Historians don't know what civilization first came up with the idea of sticking tubes into cups and slurpling, but the earliest evidence of straws comes from a seal found in a Sumerian tomb dated 3,000 B.C. It shows two men using what appear to be straws taking beer from a jar. In the same tomb, archeologists also found history's first known straw -- a tube made from gold and the precious blue stone lapis lazuli.

It's unlikely that Sumerians created the ur-straw all by themselves. The metal straw Argentinians use to drink mate (sometimes called a bombilla) is known be centuries old, at least. In the 1800s, when the rye grass straw came into vogue, its virtues -- cheapness and softness -- were also its vices, as it had a tendency to come apart in liquid. There have been two major straw innovations in the last 150 years. First, Stone made the straw dependable.

Second, someone else made the straw bendable.

HOW THE STRAW BENT

The city of San Francisco has 3,500 restaurants today, more per-person than any metro in the U.S. If we assume that almost all of them buy, stock, and serve some of the billions of plastic bendy straws produced in the U.S. every year, San Francisco could be America's per-capita bendy straw capital. This would only be appropriate, considering that the bendy straw was born at a milkshake counter of a Bay-area restaurant.

Half a century after Marvin Chester Stone found grass in his julep, Joseph B. Friedman was sitting at his brother's fountain parlor, the Varsity Sweet Shop, in the 1930s, watching his little daughter Judith fuss over a milkshake. She was drinking out of a paper straw, so we can be assured that the milkshake did not taste like grass. But since Stone's paper straw was designed to be straight, little Judith was struggling to drink it up.

Screen Shot 2011-11-22 at 10.05.21 AM.pngFriedman had an idea. As the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center explains, he brought a straw to his home, where he liked to tinker with inventions like "lighted pencils" and other newfangled writing equipment. The straw would be a simple tinker. A screw and some string would do.

Friedman inserted a screw into the straw toward the top (see image). Then he wrapped dental floss around the paper, tracing grooves made by the inserted screw. Finally, he removed the screw, leaving a accordion-like ridge in the middle of the once-straight straw. Voila! he had created a straw that could bend around its grooves to reach a child's face over the edge of a glass.

The modern bendy straw was born. The plastic would come later. The "crazy" straw -- you know, the one that lets you watch the liquid ride a small roller coaster in plastic before reaching your mouth -- would come later, too. But the the game-changing invention had been made. In 1939, Friedman founded Flex-Straw Company. By the 1940s, he was manufacturing flex-straws with his own custom-built machines. His first sale didn't go to a restaurant, but rather to a hospital, where glass tubes still ruled. Nurses realized that bendy straws could help bed-ridden patients drink while lying down. Solving the "Judith problem" had created a multi-million dollar business.

***

If straws that bend aren't quite the pinnacle of modern innovation, theirs is still a textbook story of invention. The drinking tube is practically as old as history. But only in the last century-and-a-half did two tweaks lead us to the simple stick of bendy plastic you unwrap every time you grab a seat at a diner. The smallest features of modern life are stealth inventions. Their ingenuity is quiet. Their advantages are imperceptible. But they are inventions.

Friedman had to fight to prove the urgency of his invention. In his legal claim to the U.S. Patent Office in 1936, he summed up the tweaker's manifesto in a short paragraph that makes a fitting capstone to this brief history of the bendy straw:

Applicant has met a problem long existing in the art. A view of any soda fountain on a hot day, with the glasses showing innumerable limp and broken straws drooping over the edges thereof, will immediately show that this problem has long existed.  Where we have the conditions where certainly the straw is old, where corrugated tubing is old, and where no inventor, during those years, has seen fit or has been able to solve this problem, whereas applicant did, that situation alone is prima facie evidence of invention.

Images courtesy of the Joseph B. Friedman Papers, 1915 - 2000, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

Just In