This year, I’ve committed to going straw-free, and while I’ve had some setbacks, I’ve largely adapted to saying “No straws, please” at restaurants or simply not taking straws when ordering fast food. I’ve also learned, however, that straws are absolutely everywhere, and they’re so ingrained in our culture that they often go unnoticed or taken for granted (hence why they’re such a huge part of the single-use plastic waste problem). But how did we get sucked into straws in the first place?
While straws may be our modern problem, they actually have a much longer history than many people realize. The first straws – thin tubes made from gold and inlaid with precious stones – where crafted by the ancient Sumerians approximately 5,000 years ago. It is believed that these reusable straws were used for drinking beer, which was unfiltered and had solid waste products that settled to the bottom of the beverage. Similarly, in ancient Argentina, metal straws were used for drinking tea and had built-in sieves that would filter out solid bits.
Since then, drinking tubes – straws – have been made from a variety of materials, including wood, hollow bones, bamboo or other naturally hollow plant or grass stalks. In the 1800s, rye grass was a popular straw material, but quickly got mushy in liquid if the drinks weren’t consumed right away. When one particularly enterprising inventor and maker of cigarette holders, Marvin Stone, was dissatisfied with how the mushy straw affected the taste of his mint julep, not to mention the gritty residue a dissolving straw left behind, he set about patenting a different type of straw, made of paper. At first Stone used a thin layer of glue to coat his paper straws and keep them intact, but later used a wax coating that was more durable, particularly in alcoholic drinks. In 1888, Stone patented his straw design, and within two years, his factory was producing more paper straws than cigarette holders.
Of course, there are many more types of straws…
- The “bendy” straw with a flexible, movable elbow was patented in 1937.
- Plastic straws overtook paper straw production in the 1960s and 1970s.
- Krazy Straws first appeared in the 1940s and started mass production in 1961.
- The spoon straw or “Slurpee Straw” was invented in 1968 by Arthur A. Aykanian.
- Flavored straws that added tastes to drinks first appeared in the U.S. in 1957.
In recent years, as the environmental impact of so much single-use plastic has become more threatening and widely acknowledged, more reusable straws have gained popularity. Today, straws made of glass, metal, silicone and acrylic are popular, and more durable yet still biodegradable options made from paper, bamboo and other plant materials are also available. Because of these more responsible options, straws aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, but hopefully those plastic ones that fill landfills, clog waterways, litter roadways and endanger wildlife may start to vanish. We can all do our part to add a happier chapter to the history of straws, one sip at a time!