The Amazing History and the Strange Invention of the Bendy Straw

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.

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

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