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The history of straws

posted by Tim Carmody   Jun 22, 2018

Alexis Madrigal is great at the systemic sublime — taking an everyday object or experience and showing how it implicates interconnected networks across space, time, and levels of analysis. His history of the drinking straw — or rather, “a history of modern capitalism from the perspective of the drinking straw” — is no exception. It doesn’t give quite enough space to disability, either in its history or its examination of the straw’s future — the stakes of that debate are better-covered in this David Perry essay from a year ago — but there are still plenty of goodies.

Temperance and public health grew up together in the disease-ridden cities of America, where despite the modern conveniences and excitements, mortality rates were higher than in the countryside. Straws became a key part of maintaining good hygiene and public health. They became, specifically, part of the answer to the scourge of unclean drinking glasses. Cities begin requiring the use of straws in the late 1890s. A Wisconsin paper noted in 1896 that already in many cities “ordinances have been issued making the use of wrapped drinking straws essential in public eating places.”

Add in urbanization, the suddenly cheap cost of wood-pulp paper goods, and voila: you get soda fountains and disposable straws, soon followed by disposable paper cups, and eventually, their plastic successors, manufactured by a handful of giant companies to the specifications of a handful of other giant companies, in increasingly automated processes for the benefit of shareholders. It’s a heck of a yarn.