Nature offers several ready-made natural straws and humans have used these for thousands of years. In fact, the straw is said to be one of the oldest “eating” implements, and it seems to have had considerable significance too. Ancient Sumerian cities (modern-day Southern-Iraq) dating back more than 5000 years have revealed a surprising stash of gold and lapis lazuli straws. In fact, many were unearthed from tombs, which normally indicates an object associated with status, wealth or spiritual beliefs.
So, it may very well be that the Sumerians invented the drinking straw, in that they appear to have been first to manufacture it, as opposed to merely adopting plant-based straws plucked straight from nature. What they drank with those precious straws is certainly significant. They were well versed in the art of beer making. Their fermentation process left solid residue at the bottom of drinking vessels. Tipping the container to drink certainly moved this along with the flow of the beverage; using a straw was a perfect solution.
History would have to wait until the late 1800’s, soon after the Industrial Revolution, for the first paper straw. Here is a brief look into how it all began.
It was just an ordinary day when Washington D.C. inventor Marvin C. Stone sat drinking mint julep through a stalk of rye grass. Nothing outstanding here. That was still a common straw at that time. But Stone must have been someone who truly savored the minute details of life’s simple pleasures, for he realized he did not care much for the residue the straw deposited in his beverage as it broke down. An old Sumerian pet peeve, revisited. He had worked in the cigar industry and promptly envisioned adapting a process that was common to the cigar rolling process.
His prototype was created by wrapping strips of paper around a pencil. Upon removing the pencil, he carefully applied a thin layer of glue to secure the paper in its tubular shape. He later refined the design by using paraffin-coated manila paper, which prevented the straws from becoming soggy. The first straw manufacturing machine was invented in 1906 by the Stone Straw Corporation. Straws were wound manually before then. The plastic straw arrives on the scene by the 1960’s along with everything else we began to spin out of plastic then. We just can’t help creating stuff. Our imagination has no limits.
Stone passed away in 1899, but he revolutionized the beverage industry in one single moment of creative inspiration. He also established the standard for the ideal straw configuration. He grew up with soda fountains and early versions of the soon-to-be-famous milk shakes, and so the design of the straw was greatly influenced by these types of beverages. A suitable straw, according to him, had to be 8 ½-inch long and a diameter small enough to prevent lemon seed from being pulled up, yet wide enough to drink some of the denser beverages that were becoming popular in his time.
Today’s controversy about the simple drinking implement might cause someone like Marvin C. Stone to ponder yet another innovative evolution of the straw. Some companies are experimenting with biodegradable straws. It is a unique challenge. Perhaps some clever marketing genius could find a way to revive the lapis lazuli straw and we could each carry one, proudly.