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The story of disposable paper cups

2018-05-07 16:08:17

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 disposable coffee cups, 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,  "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.