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It’s a Monday. You stayed up until two o’clock last night finishing your homework. You roll out of bed fifteen minutes before class starts, throw on some decent clothes and groggily make a stop at the silver lining for all college students: Starbucks, or The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, or Einstein’s… The distributor is not necessarily important — it’s what they sell. And it has left a mark on your car seats, your favorite t-shirt and Western culture.
For most of us, coffee is a major aspect of our everyday lives. We spend way too much money at our favorite shops and might even depend on the caffeine to function, and yet you have probably never given a second thought to the container of your liquid heaven: the disposable coffee cup.
They are underappreciated, they are always a bit too hot, and there is probably at least one on the floor of your car or forgotten somewhere in your room… but if they didn’t exist, we would have to finish our coffee inside the shop of wherever our drink was purchased. Imagine having to squeeze in to the constantly busy Starbucks at the Student Union to enjoy your beverage. No thank you.
The forefront of the disposable coffee cup’s history starts at the beginning of the 20th century. Thanks to the growth of the temperance movement, plain water had become more and more popular since the end of the Civil War. Whether people drank from the fountains, barrells, wells, and wagons dotted around cities, they passed around a cup of metal, wood, or ceramic. Yes, a communal cup… shared by everyone.
Eventually, more and more Americans began to learn about germs and how they take part in disease. In 1907, Lawrence Luellen — a Boston lawyer and inventor — invented a paper cup that could be thrown away after use. He called it the Health Kup, but five years later changed it to the Dixie Cup, named after a popular line of toys: the Dixie Dolls.
Everything was used and reused before the Spanish flu erupted in 1918.
According to Michael Y. Park, “In the U.S., nearly one in three people was infected, and over half a million died. Suddenly, a healthy fear of germs wasn’t just for hypochondriacs anymore.”
People began to appreciate the effectiveness of the likes of Dixie Cups. Therefore, disposable cups had rooted themselves into culture and were here to stay.
Disposable cups were not only limited to holding water, of course. People began to use them for hot beverages such as tea and coffee, as well. With the 1930s came a boom of invention for handled cups, given that no one wanted to burn their hands. Sydney Koons invented a handle that attached to paper cups in 1933, and in 1936 Walter Cecil invented a paper cup that came with handles.
Park wrote, “The Golden Age of the disposable coffee cup seems to have been the 60s, when four major things happened: the foam cup, the Anthora cup, the tearable lid, and 7-Eleven.”
William F. Dart and son William A. Dart managed to make use of an expanded polystyrene by manufacturing it into foam cups. Nowadays, Dart Container Corporation makes 70 percent of the world’s foam cups.
Czech immigrant Leslie Buck kickstarted the disposable coffee cups’ focus on aesthetics in 1963, when he designed the blue-and-white-with-bronze-lettering Anthora cup. New York Times declared this particular cup “the most successful cup in history” in a 1995 article.
In 1964, 7-Eleven became the first convenience chain to sell coffee in to-go cups. Beforehand, taking your beverage out of a store was not possible. Think of a cozy coffee shop that plays indie music and is known for their latte art. You probably go there to sit down, enjoy the ambiance and drink your coffee. Before 1964, this was the only option.
In 1967, Alan Frank filed a patent for a tearable coffee lid. By doing so, he finally acknowledged that people tend to drink coffee as they travel. Imagine how many spills occurred beforehand! But maybe we aren’t all dreadfully clumsy.
Innovation of the disposable coffee cup seemed to hit a lull throughout the 70s, with the most exciting development being the pull-back tab on lids.
However, a second movement of disposable coffee cups came in the 80s. Americans were starting to buy less regular coffee and leaned more toward fancy drinks, such as cappuccinos and lattes. To keep the signature frothy crown intact, to-go cups had to come with domed lids that not only kept the coffee hot, but also left room for the foam.
In 1984, the Traveler lid came along, which had a functional lid that left room for foam, a protruding rim that helped cool coffee before it reached the drinker’s mouth, and even a small dip in the middle that prevented the drinker from smashing their nose against the plastic. Yes, smashing their nose. This style of lid is still common today.
During this time, the previously celebrated foam cups had declined in usage, for people had begun to realize their negative impact on the environment. Paper cups made a huge comeback, especially with the decision made by the owner of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, to have their stores carry paper to-go cups as opposed to foam.
In the 90s, more and more people became worried about their safety while drinking their coffee. The downsides of paper became apparent — it was a terrible insulator.
“Consumers began double-cupping their hot coffee, which was not only environmentally wasteful but also cost stores twice as much on as they expected,” Park wrote.
To combat this problem, Jary Sorenson invented the cardboard sleeve in 1991. Meanwhile, paper cup manufacturers developed double and triple-walled cups, which helped improve insulation.
More recently, Think Coffee and Australia’s KeepCup are encouraging the usage of reusable cups, which could bring the history of disposable coffee cups back into the pre-Dixie cup days in a nice circle. But don’t count on it; many believe that disposable coffee cups are here for good.
Sarah Vowell once wrote, “Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks, waiting for the post office to open. I was enjoying a chocolatey cafe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle’s Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention, and consumerism served with whipped cream on top.”
In a disposable coffee cup.