How the Flexible Straw Was Invented

The drinking straw was invented by 3000 B.C., as attested by Sumerian artifacts. Until very recently, these straws were tubes from plant stems, such as rye. Besides dissolving in water, these straws often added unwelcome plant flavors to drinks. In 1888, Marvin Chester Stone patented a waxed paper straw that didn't add a grassy flavor to drinks, and these quickly replaced plant straws. But we would have to wait a few more decades before straws became flexible.

Sometime during the 1930s, tinkerer Joseph B. Friedman watched his young daughter struggle to drink a milkshake from a high counter at a soda shop. There had to be a way to improve the design to make it flexible. Here's what he did:

Friedman inserted a screw into the straw toward the top (see image). Then he wrapped dental floss around the paper, tracing grooves made by the inserted screw. Finally, he removed the screw, leaving a accordion-like ridge in the middle of the once-straight straw. Voila! he had created a straw that could bend around its grooves to reach a child's face over the edge of a glass.

The modern bendy straw was born. The plastic would come later. The "crazy" straw -- you know, the one that lets you watch the liquid ride a small roller coaster in plastic before reaching your mouth -- would come later, too. But the the game-changing invention had been made. In 1939, Friedman founded Flex-Straw Company. By the 1940s, he was manufacturing flex-straws with his own custom-built machines. His first sale didn't go to a restaurant, but rather to a hospital, where glass tubes still ruled. Nurses realized that bendy straws could help bed-ridden patients drink while lying down.


Link | Photo: Flickr user matsber

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I remember that seeing flexible drinking straws was one of the highlights of visiting someone in the hospital when I was a kid. Of course, back then they didn't let children in the rooms, but I often got a drink with a flexible straw while sitting in the waiting room.
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