The Invention and Evolution of the Drinking Straw, from Mint Juleps to MilkshakesS

Marvin Stone was sipping on a mint julep with some buddies, but he was not enjoying it. In the late 1800s, when this happy hour took place, natural rye grass was the tool used to slurp up your booze.

But Stone found himself decidedly displeased with what the natural straw was doing to his drink. The grass had a habit of falling apart in the liquid, leaving grit as an unpleasant extra cocktail ingredient. So Stone decided to follow an idea we've all once thought about, though with usually nothing productive to show for it; he'd do drinking better.

The Invention and Evolution of the Drinking Straw, from Mint Juleps to MilkshakesS

He started by wrapping a piece of paper around a pencil to create a cylindeical shape. Then he removed the writing utensil and glued the curled pieces of paper together. It seems simple—almost kindergarten fare—but this directed bit of messing around with crafts was huge. And it was an immediate hit with local drinkers who were thrilled to enjoy their beverages sans sediment. Bolstered by the enthusiasm over his paper tube, Stone patented a paraffin-coated manila version in 1888.

At 8.5 inches long and wide enough to stop lemon seeds from getting stuck, Stone's straw improved the slurping experience of, um…every beverage worthy of one. Drinking not only became easier with the improved liquid to mouth elevator, but the cocktail also wasn't muddied by the transportation method.

Just two years after his patent went through, Stone, who owned a paper cigarette holder company, was selling more hand-wound straws than smoke-holders—which was awesome—but the sales left many tired fingers. So: Another innovation.

A machine invented in 1906 by the rebranded Stone Straw Corporation took the winding process hands-free. The technique turned out to be good for spinning other materials into tube shapes, too. Mass-produced radios were outfitted with spiral-wound tubes in 1928 using Stone's process, and now everything from electric motors to batteries to transformers contain the thing.

The Invention and Evolution of the Drinking Straw, from Mint Juleps to MilkshakesS

The next big shift in straw-based beverage consumption also happened over drinks, but this time of the soda fountain variety. While watching his daughter fail to drink a milkshake with the standard rigid paper straw, Joseph Friedman, who worked in San Francisco in real estate and optometry while inventing on the side, came up with an idea that would better transfer the milkshake from a tall glass to his small daughter. The fix was a very clever bit of DIY engineering. He stuck a screw inside a straight straw around the 2/3 mark. Then, he pulled a piece of dental floss around the straw but in the grooves of the screw, which imprinted depressions in the paper tube. This trick allowed the straw-for the very first time—to lean toward the lips of the sipper.

Friedman's patent application, submitted in 1936, makes a descriptive case for the design upgrade. "A view of any soda fountain on a hot day, with the glasses showing innumerable limp and broken straws drooping over the edges thereof, will immediately show that the problem has long existed." No one likes a limp straw. The patent was granted a year later.

It took a decade for Friedman to get the business up and running-including finding the money and talent to build a machine to churn out his bendable sippers. "He himself was not a skilled machinist with an engineering background, but he was smart enough to know where to find the talent," explains National Museum of American History archivist Alison Oswald.

His Flex-Straw Company had initial success in hospitals by offering a disposable replacement to the hollow glass sticks used at the time. Only later was it marketed it for home and child use.

Today even Sarah Palin requires one. Real America (all of it) has fallen for the bendy upgrade.


Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. Catch up with her on Twitter.

Images courtesy United States Patent and Trademark Office and the Smithsonian Institute.