The history of drinking straws: ancient beer slurper, erotic object, ocean polluter

Published July 18 2018
Updated July 19 2018

Our plastic pollution pandemic has a new poster child: the straw.

Buoyed by a disturbing viral video of a researcher prying a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose, the utensil rose to topple the plastic bag and six-pack can holder as the item currently ruining the world. These straws are used once and often wind up on beaches, contributing to the voluminous amount of floating plastic in our oceans and waterways. And while they do break up, they never break down — they live forever, often cracking into tiny pieces that can be eaten by the fish we catch. If you eat wild fish, you probably eat plastic.

This reckoning is driving efforts across the country to regulate straw use, including in St. Petersburg. But not everyone is on board. Some see laws like that as the worst kind of bureaucrats-gone-wild overreach. For the disabled, the straw can be a necessity. Others see the issue as a waste of the environmental movement’s time — by weight, straws account for an insignificant amount of ocean pollution. Meanwhile, those who do want to eradicate straws see banning them as an effective reminder that plastics have despoiled the world.

How did we get here in the first place?

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History shows that before straws became lines in sand, they were about cultivating community. And once, straws were synonymous with mankind’s greatest social invention: beer.

Sumerians, a Mesopotamian civilization in what is now Iraq, used straws to drink beer brewed in large vats. The Sumerians brewed their beer in the same vats from which they drank, and spent barley and oats and other by-products from the fermentation process would float to the top. Straws allowed those who indulged to drink the pure liquid from the bottom.

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The vats, too big and heavy to lift and pass, sat on the floor. With long straws, friends and family could relax and enjoy the beverage comfortably.

That’s what straws did: They made room for others.

"It’s a communal activity," said William B. Hafford, a research associate at the Penn Museum who specializes in the Near East.

That tradition has endured. Take classic mid-20th century images of teens sharing a malt at the soda shop.

However, straws were also a tool for demarcation in Mesopotamia, something to differentiate classes. Those who could afford to would adorn their straws, made mostly of reeds, in metals or stones — those decorations are what last, Hafford said. In one instance, Queen Puabi of Ur was buried with a 4.5-foot-long straw wrapped in gold foil. The straw, sticking from a silver pot when it was found in the 1920s, was long gone, but the foil remained. Archaeologists believe her survivors left it in her tomb so she could use her straw in the afterlife.

That was about 2500 B.C. Evidence of straws shows up even earlier, in another Mesopotamian region called Tepe Gawra, according to Max Nelson, an associate professor of Greek and Roman studies at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. Depictions on cylinder seals, cylinders that when rolled out create an image, show people using straws, also likely to drink beer. The earliest seals date back to 3850 B.C.

"We can say for sure people have been using straws for 6,000 years," Nelson said.

Straws were also once items of sexual evocation, according to Nelson. Men viewed it as erotic when women drank from straws — not unlike how men now might view a woman with a lollipop or banana. And Babylonian plaques that survived from about 2000 B.C. show a woman drinking from a straw while having sex with a man behind her. Historians believe the women could be tavern owners, who both made the beer and doubled as prostitutes for their patrons.

But by Roman times, straws had fallen out of vogue, Nelson said. In the first century A.D., Roman authors wrote about a group of people whose mouths were sealed, except for a small opening for drinking straws.

"It shows how foreign the idea of using straws was among the Romans that they had to invent this mythology about it," Nelson said.

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Straws keep popping up all over history.

East Asians used straws to drink rice beer, according to Patrick E. McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the Penn Museum. Ancient Egyptians used straws while building the Great Pyramids. The Inuit, of present-day Alaska and Canada, used straws to drink water. People still use straws in contemporary Tanzania and Kenya to drink beer, often communally. There, the beer is thick, effectively a meal substitute, according to University of South Florida St. Petersburg anthropology professor John Arthur. And since straws there are crafted by hand, they’re reused.

Tubes — or hollow cylinders — have had other uses throughout history. Healers in North and South America used tubes to suck foreign objects out of sick or injured people, according to Brown University professor Stephen Houston. The Shoshone-Paiute tribes in the Great Basin used tubes as underwater breathing apparatuses while hunting duck. They’d float duck decoys above their heads and swim up to the fowl undetected. Mayans used straws to blow into chocolate, creating an effervescent bubbly head, Houston said, not unlike a kid these days blowing bubbles in chocolate milk.

And, of course, tubes have a long history as tools for smoking.

Fast-forward centuries, and the first straw-as-we-know-it came from a man named Marvin Stone, who, in the late 1800s, didn’t like that his natural rye grass straw was disintegrating into his mint julep. He wound paper around a pencil, glued the coil together and, voila, the first paper straw.

In the 1930s, inventor Joseph Friedman added an accordionlike element to Stone’s design, creating the bendy straw. They went on to become a hit with children, those who are bedridden and, apparently, Sarah Palin, who has included a "bendable straw" requirement in her speaking contract rider.

The plastic straw came to be in the mid-20th century and proliferated alongside the explosion of fast-food joints. From that point forward, every straw ever produced still exists. Decades later, an item with origins in the ancient world became a source of controversy for the very first time.

First, there’s disagreement on the basic facts. The National Park Service estimates Americans use 500 million straws a day, though critics contest the reliability of that number. The Plastics Industry Association estimates about 16 million straws are used daily.

Frankly, the actual number is moot. The answer is Americans use too many.

So what draws people to the straw? The frequency with which Americans sip while driving surely plays a role. Other reasons could be a desire to preserve lipstick. And the American Dental Association recommends using a straw when consuming acidic beverages like sodas and fruit juices to stave off tooth decay.

But maybe the main reason we use straws is because we take what’s given. Straws are omnipresent. They come with water on tables, iced coffee, Slurpees. Restaurants that have adopted a straw-upon-request policy have found they give out fewer straws. People don’t yearn for straws when straws aren’t offered.

The plastic cylinders’ ubiquity wouldn’t be such a problem if they were being disposed of correctly and they were easier to recycle. They’re made from polypropylene, a common and recyclable material, according to the Plastics Industry Association. But straws are too light to be reliably collected and sorted.

Instead, they end up in water, where they enter the food chain and sometimes animals’ noses. The YouTube video of a marine biologist wrestling a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s bleeding nose galvanized many advocates. The video has been viewed more than 30 million times.

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The advocacy, in many cases, has worked. Heavyweight brands are throwing their logos behind the cause. Starbucks last week announced it will eliminate straws by 2020. American Airlines last week said it will replace plastic straws and stirrers with ones that are biodegradable.

As more municipalities take on the single-use plastic straw, one might wonder what innovations will take its place. We’re already getting a glimpse. Glass and metal reusable straws are showing up, fit with their own pipe cleaners. So are collapsible metal key-chain straws. And some restaurants are rediscovering the paper straw.

But maybe the answer is to ditch the straw altogether. No, not for the environment or the animals or the quality of our seafood. For the vanity.

That puckering face synonymous with straw sucking? It causes wrinkles.

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Josh Solomon at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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