The Invention of the Paper Cup
(part two in a five-part series by Maureen Callahan)
Following the Civil War, when modern conveniences like running water, indoor bathrooms and gaslights were only at first available to the affluent, certain sectors of the “have” society initiated philanthropic projects to “purify” America. While many of these groups sought to promote temperance or fight gambling, others endeavored to fight grime. For several decades the women’s clubs ostensibly served as organizations for self-improvement but thrust later shifted to civic affairs – clubwomen interested in sanitary reform set out to accomplish what the men of the city had failed to achieve: programs for clean streets and alleys. The target was, of course, not democratically chosen. These women set out for America’s slums– Jane Addams’ Hull House, for instance, in the meatpacking district of Chicago–to not only improve the environments of the poor, but to also, and by extension, to improve their tastes, their spirits, and their souls. This was an effort, to borrow a modern term, to “mainstream” the immigrant poor.
After all, the idea that infection could come from other humans was relatively new. Popular and literary tropes demonstrate that disease was not considered a condition, it was understood as a personality type. Thus, if the poor shared the same habits and sensibilities as the rich and enjoyed the same activities, progressives would have succeeded in making them no longer “sickly” (which is an entirely different measure of considering disease than making a person no longer “sick”).
In 1906, the US Public Health Service’s Fourth Annual Congress convened doctors from across the United States to discuss sanitation on the nation’s railroads. They directed public health officials to collect samples from well fountains, waiting areas and communal drinking cups aboard the train to evaluate germ infestation (in particular, tuberculosis) onboard trains. Conference participants were appalled by these results and subsequently devised new measures to increase sanitation, including the abolition of communal drinking cups and well fountains (Fourth Conference 1906).
The sanitation zeitgeist propelled the private sector as well. On February 3, 1909 Hugh Moore and Lawrence Luellen formed the Public Cup Vendor Company (the precursor of the Dixie Cup company) in New York, principally to lease their machines to railroads and railroad stations, and to sell cups in bulk. Before going any further, it should be noted that the Dixie cup succeeded where other cup manufacturers failed because the design was genuinely brilliant. Luellen produced two designs for the cup. The first, made from a single piece of paper with folded sides (much like the small receptacles for condiments at lunch counters) was treated with paraffin to prevent the absorption of water. However, for the sake of dispensing, which requires a more rigid design, he developed the two-piece cup–one piece wrapped upon itself for the sides, and one piece creating the bottom. With a fluted lip, this model was more stable than the one-piece cup. This flange was necessary for use in a dispensing machine, so that one cup at a time could be disengaged from a stack of nested cups. The incorporation of a raised bottom helped to produce a looser fit and uniform spacing between adjacent nested cups, thus providing for more reliable dispensing.
Keep in mind that the paper cup appealed to the scientific community differently than it did to the public – scientists appreciated that the disposable, sanitary cup would prevent the intermixing of passengers’ germs; wealthy progressives, with a greater awareness and concern for the poor, appreciated the chance to prevent the (albeit symbolic) intermixing of passengers.
The paper cup business received a boost when the campaign to abolish the public drinking vessel gained several important endorsements. Lafayette College biology professor Alvin Davison’s influential study on the contamination present in school drinking cups was published as “Death in School Drinking Cups” in Technical World Magazine in August 1908, and redistributed by the Massachusetts State Board of Health in November 1909. Davison’s experiments were carried out in Easton, Pennsylvania’s public schools. and uncovered the following of a common cup which had been in use nine days in a school:
By counting the cells present on fifty different areas on the glass, as seen under the microscope, it was estimated that the cup contained over 20,000 human cells or bits of skin. As many as 150germs were seen clinging to a cingle cell, and very few cells showed less than 10 germs. Between the cells were thousands of germs left there by the smears of saliva, deposited by the drinkers. Not less than one hundred thousand bacteria were present on every square inch of the glass. (Davison 1908)
These figures are, of course, not presented in any kind of context. What kinds of germs are we talking about, exactly? Are these the bacteria that live in our mouths to help digest food? How many bacteria are on a clean ceramic or paper cup? What exactly are the consequences of drinking from this glass? To the official ear in the early twentieth century, these figures were enough to discontinue the practice of common drinking vessels. In 1909, Kansas passed the first state law to abolish the common drinking cup–the “tin dipper” in public places. The publicity given the Kansas campaign and Professor Davison’s survey eventually resulted in state after state passing laws that forbade the use of a common drinking vessel in public places. Railroads were among the first to recognize the benefits to the public of abolishing the common drinking cup, and they provided the Dixie Cup Company with the first steady market for its penny vendor. As the use of a common drinking cup was forbidden in places like schools, offices and other public places, the company began to market an apparatus which would dispense the cups for free, which still exists today in a variety of soulless offices. In his own campaign against the “tin dipper,” the founders of the Dixie Cup went on the offensive, speaking at the Pure Food Show in Madison Square Garden on the dangers of the common drinking cup on September 23, 1910 and in 1909-1910 publishing a pamphlet called “The Cup Campaigner,” from which the above illustration was taken.
Moving away from the communal drinking cup would not only serve to separate the healthy from the sick, but also long-time users of public transportation (affluent, white Americans) from increasingly mobile minorities and immigrants. Millions of people were taking up new standards of domestic culture previously restricted to the upper class and this change brought a feeling of uneasiness to those who remembered how life used to be before the invading alien element.
The paper cup was not only touted as a way to cure the social ill of public contamination; it also, and using similar discourses, was promoted as a magic bullet to defeat drunkenness. At about the same time as Luellen and Moore were seeking to place their mechanical vendors in public places, the Anti-Saloon League of New York had begun running advertisements promoting water machines as an alternative to saloons. According to the Reverend Howard H. Russell, founder of the American Anti-Saloon League
Thousands of persons are tempted into saloons every day because there are no sanitary drinking fountains where a man can get a drink of pure cold water in a clean cup…. It is a very sad fact that we have over 10,000 rum-shops in greater New York, and not a single sanitary drinking fountain to be found. What we need in all cities is sanitary drinking fountains…. Each 1,000 Luellen Cup and Water Vendors, selling only 200 drinks each vendor per day, would mean 200,000 refreshing drinks per day instead of 200,000 temptations to drink something harmful. (Petroski 2003)
Think not, however, that saloons were a social sore that the poor needed healed. Working-class taverns were a kind of mutual aid society and offered amenities poor worker housing conditions lacked. Public toilets, food, warmth, clean water, meeting space, check-cashing services, newspapersoften otherwise unavailable to workers in the late nineteenth century citycould be found free of charge in the saloon (Rosenzweig 1983).
The affluent American, educated in germ theory, would indeed be glad to pay the cent per cup that was charged in the early part of the 20th century. Poorer persons, nostalgic for that “germ- infested” cup on hot and dusty days would have to go thirsty or take used cups from the wastebasket. Those with the pennies to pay were far more likely to get clean cups for drinking, as well as all the other accouterments of sanitary living than were their impecunious counterparts.
The sanitary transformation occurred most completely at the high end of the market, as the costs of cleanliness were passed on directly to the consumer. The process worked more unevenly at the lower end of the market. In the case of the disposable drinking cup, the entire movement turned out to be something of a flop and inspired the invention of sanitary drinking fountains. At first, companies and government agencies began to install cup-vending devices, which sold paper cups for a penny each. But as hygiene reformers realized, even the cost of a penny a cup was out of the reach of many people’s means. Eventually, with legislation passed against the common drinking cup, and backlash against the undemocratic paper cup, fountains came into widespread use.