While history’s earliest straw—an ancient gold tube decorated with a precious blue stone known as lapis lazuli—dates to 3,000 B.C., the modern straw, largely unchanged since the late 1880s, owes its existence to one exacting julep drinker.
The solution came in the form of a naturally occurring and abundant plant, ryegrass, the hollow stalk of which would be used as a straw for more than half a century. At the time of its invention, it was a novel approach to a novel drink, one famously recorded in Charles Dickens’s 1843 The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. At one point in the story, the main character marvels at the presentation of a Sherry Cobbler: “Martin took the glass with an astonished look; applied his lips to the reed; and cast up his eyes once in ecstasy. He paused no more until the goblet was drained to the last drop.”
That we are not still slurping cobblers through shoots of grass is thanks to Marvin Stone of Washington, D.C., who—fed up with the reedy residue that the grass imparted in his Mint Juleps—set out to find a better straw. An early attempt consisted of a piece of paper wrapped around a pencil to form a tube, which was then glued together at the seam. In 1888, to prevent the glue from seeping into the drink and the paper from disintegrating, Stone coated the design in paraffin wax and registered a patent for his “artificial straw.”
A cigarette paper manufacturer by trade, Stone was well equipped to adapt to the production of paper straws and, by 1890, his factory was producing more straws than cigarette papers.
By the early 1960s, however, plastic had overtaken paper, and even today, plastic straws account for 99 percent of the market. But advancements in the ability to print on paper straws and a heightened sense of eco-consciousness are breathing new life into the humble design—even if their modest purpose remains very much the same.