It's what you walk away with after the first financial transaction you make every day. It's the bane of clumsy interns in offices from Seattle to Key West. And it's left its mark on your car dashboard, your favorite pair of work pants, your waistline—and American culture.
Yet you've probably never given a second thought to that lowly vehicle of caffeine consumption, the disposable coffee cup.
"A lot of people would be surprised to learn how many choices went into that cup of coffee they're buying," says Matt Fury, director of coffee at Think Coffee.
Just Add Water
If you're really going to trace the history of coffee drinking, you have to begin with the history of water drinking. And if you're going to follow the history of polycarbonate coffee cup, you have to begin with the history of disposable water cups.
That story begins at the beginning of the 20th century with a man named Lawrence Luellen, a Boston lawyer and inventor. Since the end of the Civil War, plain old drinking water had become increasingly popular, thanks to the growth of the temperance movement. Temperance activists had dotted cities with water fountains and traveled from bar to bar in temperance wagons, offering water as a healthy alternative to beer or liquor (and giving rise to the term "on the wagon" for reformed alcoholics). Whether people drank water from a fountain, barrel, well, or wagon, they passed around a cup of metal, wood, or ceramic.
"The communal cup was literally a bucket of water that people would dip out of," says Susan Strasser, author Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. "If you don't know about germs, then that's an OK solution."
Separately, however, more and more Americans were learning about the germ theory of disease. Luellen, who was one of those people, was distressed by the now-obvious health hazards posed by a communal cup. In 1907, he invented a paper cup—almost more of a paper bag at that point—that didn't have to be shared, and that could be thrown away after use. He called it the Health Kup, but changed the name five years later to that of a popular line of toys, Dixie Dolls.
By the time the U.S. had entered World War I another five years after that, disposable culture already had a clawhold on American culture.
"Before that, everything was used and reused," Strasser says. "People used broken crockery all the time. Even for very upper-middle-class women, when you cleaned the table, you saved the food on the plates. People shared all kinds of ideas for how to repair glass. Clothing was used and reused."
Then, in 1918, the Spanish flu swept in. The epidemic killed anywhere from 50 million to 100 million people around the world, or about one of out every 20 people on Earth. 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. Disposable cups were here to stay.
Things Get Heated
Obviously, though, we don't drink coffee out of Dixie cups today. The 1930s saw a flurry of new handled cups—evidence that people were already using paper cups for hot beverages. In 1933, Ohioan Sydney R. Koons filed a patent application for a handle to attach to paper cups. In 1936, Walter W. Cecil invented a paper cup that came with handles, obviously meant to mimic mugs. By the 1950s, there was no question that disposable coffee cups were on people's minds, as inventors began filing patents for lids meant specifically for coffee cups.
But the Golden Age of the 280ml polycarbonate water cup seems to have been the '60s, when four major things happened: the foam cup, the Anthora cup, the tearable lid, and 7-Eleven.
Michigander William F. Dart and his son William A. Dart had been experimenting with an expanded polystyrene, a substance that companies had been struggling to find a practical commercial use for ever since it was developed in 1954. The Darts started trying to assemble a machine that could manufacture expanded-polystyrene foam cups in 1957.
"It was a very experimental material," says Chrissy Rapanos, senior market research analyst at what's now known as Dart Container Corporation, which makes 70 percent of the world's foam cups. "People were trying to use it as insulation for baby bottles, as shampoo bottles, even flower pots."
In 1960, the Darts shipped their first batch of styrene cups to a paper-distributing company in Jackson, Mississippi. For the next two decades, foam cups increasingly became the choice for coffee.
Coffee cups were also starting to get attention for their aesthetics. In 1963, a Czech immigrant named Leslie Buck designed the iconic Anthora cup for Sherri Cup of Connecticut. The instantly recognizable design—blue and white with bronze lettering, with an ancient Greek theme (Buck named it "Anthora" because he mispronounced the word "amphora") and the words "We Are Happy to Serve You"—became a constant of everyday life in New York City, with a 1995 New York Times story declaring it "the most successful cup in history."
(It's also extinct: Sherri Cup was later bought by Solo Cup, which was in turn recently bought by Dart. The original Sherri machines used to make the Anthora cup were thrown out. Though the Anthora design can be special-ordered, it is now printed on slimmer, taller Solo cups, rather than the squatter cups New Yorkers remember, according to Melissa Dye, product manager of the Solo division of Dart.)
And in 1964 on Long Island, N.Y., convenience chain 7-Eleven became the first chain to offer fresh coffee in to-go cups. The company quickly expanded to-go coffee to the rest of its Northeast chains, and then nationwide.
Toward the tail end of the decade, coffee lids began to come into their own, too. In 1967, Philadelphian Alan Frank filed a patent for a tearable coffee lid, finally acknowledging that Americans were drinking their coffee as they walked.
"We've always been a nation on the go, on the run, in a hurry, and since the Boston Tea Party, we have been fueled primarily by coffee in that rush to wherever we're going," says Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Changed Our World. "So it's really quite natural that we would want coffee to go."
Throughout the '70s, as styrene cups invaded our desks and car cup holders, disposable-coffee-cup innovation seemed to hit a relative lull, with the most exciting developments taking place with lids—most importantly when it came to to-go drinking. In 1975, for example, the pull-back tab was invented, building upon Frank's tear-away lid.
The '80s, however, saw a second renaissance of disposable coffee cups, despite the fact that Americans were actually starting to buy less regular coffee. Instead, they were drinking cappuccinos, lattes, cafe mochas—specialty coffees that often included a frothy crown. To maintain that signature topping, to-go cups now had to come with domed lids that not only kept drinks hot, but also left headroom for the foam. Inventors responded appropriately: In the '70s, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had received nine patents for coffee-cup lids. The next decade, 26 came pouring in.
"Even something like the humble coffee lid—everything is designed to an incredible degree," says Louise Harpman, a New York City architect who, along with business partner Scott Specht, owns the largest collection of coffee-cup lids in the world.
For many fans of practical design, the apotheosis of the coffee-cup lid came about in 1984, when Solo filed the patent for the Traveler lid, which combined a sleek, functional look with a lid domed enough to accommodate specialty drinks, a protruding rim that helped cool coffee before it reached the drinker's mouth, and even a depression in the middle so the drinker wouldn't have to smush his nose against plastic every time he took a sip. (In 2005, the Museum of Modern Art added the Solo Traveler lid to its permanent collection.)
Meanwhile, as the coffee-cup lid was having its decade in the sun, the styrene foam cup was going through dark times. The environmental movement was no longer a niche philosophy, and mainstream Americans were finally absorbing the concept of conscientious consumerism. Styrene cups began a decline, and polycarbonate wine glass staged a comeback.
But the pivotal moment in the war between foam and paper came about in 1987 and can be summed up in a single word: Starbucks.
That year, the new owner of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, had to choose what sort of disposable to-go cups his stores would carry as they underwent massive planned expansion throughout the U.S. Just like other purveyors of drinks like cappuccino, he knew he needed lids that could hold but wouldn't crush the foam atop the company's frothy drinks—those domed lids that were suddenly popping up in cafés everywhere. Solo made just the kind of domed lids he needed—but they only fit on Solo paper cups. So Starbucks went with paper—and the styrene foam cup has never recovered.
How Cosmo Kramer Changed Your Morning
In the '90s, safety became the predominant theme. As paper cups became standard again, the downsides of the material became apparent as well—styrene was a much better insulator. Consumers began double-cupping their hot coffee, which was not only environmentally wasteful but cost stores twice as much on cups as they expected.
In 1991, Portland, Oregon, dad Jay Sorenson had an epiphany about making paper cups safer when he spilled hot coffee on himself while dropping his daughter off at school. So he invented the Java Jacket, an insulated cardboard sleeve that slides over a paper coffee cup. Paper-cup manufacturers, meanwhile, developed double- and triple-walled cups that improved insulation.
In 1994, the infamous hot-coffee lawsuit, Liebeck v. McDonald's, was decided by a jury. Albuquerque grandmother Stella Liebeck was in a parked car, trying to add cream and sugar to a coffee she'd just bought from a McDonald's drive-through, when the styrene foam cup spilled the hot liquid on her, giving her third-degree burns and sending her to the hospital for eight days of skin grafts. The jury awarded Liebeck $2.86 million. America, and American coffee stores, took notice. So did comedians: A year later, a lampoon of the case was immortalized as an example of a frivolous lawsuit on Seinfeld.
"It's a shame this woman was so ridiculed, but maybe in the end some good came of it, and some cups are more safe," says Susan Saladoff, an Oregon attorney and filmmaker who produced the documentary Hot Coffee about the incident and subsequent legal case.
In recent years, the two themes that seem to have emerged in coffee-cup design are conscientious and experiential.
Florida inventor Tim Sprunger falls firmly into the latter category. He's invented the Arom-Ahh!, a coffee lid that takes advantage of that insight from the designer of the Solo Traveler in 1983—i.e., people have noses. He inserted a compartment into disposable-cup lids to enhance both the smell and taste of hot coffee, making beverages smell like nuts, fruit, even cheese—or sometimes just more like coffee.
"I can make Starbucks coffee taste better than they can," Sprunger says.
On the other hand, Fury of Think Coffee has emphasized compostability in his ice cream cup, with his stores using cups from U.K. firm Vegware, while encouraging people to bring in reusable cups.
"The future will be semi-reusable," Fury says.
The rise of reusable to-go cups, like Australia's KeepCup, would bring the story of disposable cups back to the pre-Dixie-cup days in a nice, neat circle, but don't count on it. Disposable coffee cups are here for good, says food historian Cory Bernat, who co-curated the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's American Food & Wine History exhibits.
"When I look at food culture, it's all about habit, and businesses have a lot more influence over our behaviors than we like to admit," she says. "I see companies that are very quick to reassure people it's OK to ask for convenience, and people who are very quick to accept that offer. People just want this thing out of their hands in the easiest way possible."
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