But Please—Not Plastic Ones
So, let’s say it’s 3,000 BC and you’re at a kick-butt party in Mesopotamia.
Plenty of snacks, lots of gruel, a few fatted calves on the grill, these Sumerians really know how to have a good time—but then there’s one little snag. You can’t get the last few dregs of mead from the bottom of your glass, and that’s a bummer. You switch to beer brewed right in front of you in gigantic vats, but that’s not much better.
Fortunately for you, one of your new BFFs just got back from a wild vacay in the Caucuses and he brought home a new idea: drinking straws! Party on, Dude.
It’s really hard to say who “invented” drinking straws because anyone could have noticed a hollow tube and thought, “Hey, would you look at that!” In various places, mostly in Sumeria and the area between the Baltic and Caspian Seas, archaeologists have discovered early, purpose-made drinking straws created from precious metals and hollowed stones.
If you look at the history of drinking straws, nothing much happened to the straw for a very long time—from the age of the Sumerians until around the early 1800s, when drinking cheap liquids through a rye-grass straw became a fad in America. Sure, it worked, but it altered the taste of the drink and who likes grassy mimosas?
You have to wonder what took so long for that to be fixed—but it was. In 1888, inventor Marvin Stone filed a patent for a new-fangled drinking straw made of manila paper. If you imagine long strips of manila envelopes, wrapped around a pencil and glued, well, you can exactly picture his radical invention. Eventually, Stone created a machine to do the work, anybody could get a paper straw for their drink, and nobody looked back.
And that’s how it was until 1937, when inventor Joseph Friedman invented the bendable straw—a hit not just with kids, but with ailing patients and with caregivers, too.
And then came fast food, and the need for a straw that didn’t disintegrate into mush in a glass of soda or a chocolate malt. In the 1960s—in answer to that (and because they could)—manufacturers began making straws out of plastic, which could sit in a liquid forever and ever without falling apart. You could buy Krazy Straws or Silly Straws, with curves and twists and such, and you could buy extra-wide straws for that extra-thick milkshake. It didn’t take long for paper straws to become scarce.
The thing is (but few talked about it), plastic straws could be washed and reused, though pretty much nobody did and that became a problem. Drink, slurp, into the garbage those straws went and by 2011, it was estimated that around 500 million plastic straws were being used per day in America before they were tossed into landfills and oceans by the trillions. And we might not have paid much attention, except that video of a turtle and the removal of a plastic straw from the poor creature’s nostril made us all sit up and think.
Today, you can refuse a straw and nobody cares. You can bring your own and take it home for cleaning when you’re done. Or you can ask if a paper straw is available. Because leaving more plastic straws behind would really suck. ▼
Terri Schlichenmeyer’s second book, The Book of Facts and Trivia: American History, came out January 16, 2024.