A Social History of the Paper Cup

Jason: I’m thrilled to introduce a series of posts by librarian & archivist Maureen Callahan. She is an alumna of Bryn Mawr College and a recent graduate of the School of Information at the University of Michigan. When I heard that Maureen had researched and written about the origins of the disposable cup, I begged her to publish on Food in the Library. She kindly agreed.

Food is situational. Why does a hot dog at a ballgame taste different than a hot dog anywhere else? How is a meal on china different than a meal on fiestaware? Does soda taste different when it’s served in glass bottles? What is it about packaging, anyway, that alters the significant properties of food?

According to Michael Pollan (of The Omnivore’s Dilemma fame), nineteen percent of Americans eat dinner in their cars. They probably don’t use reusable servingware. What happens to this waste? Why do we think it’s okay to create so much waste? Has it always been this way?

Let’s find out. Below, I present the first part in a five-part series — the biography of the paper cup, an item that was part of the first great wave of disposable culture.

Crusades against Germs and Mountains of Waste:
How the Paper Cup Created Disposable Culture

(part one in a five-part series)

The paper cup is a gateway to the dark side of American material culture – waste, disease, class divisions and environmental pollution. It is a post-germ theory, post-industrial product; its invention was partly the result of nativism and panic and its promotion piggybacks a culture of environmental carelessness. The disposable culture that was christened with the advent of the paper cup was designed to keep people separate from each other and alienated from the creation, composition and consequences of commodities.

Early advertisements for the paper cup appeared around 1885, and a patent search reveals examples premiering mostly in the early twentieth century. This time frame corresponds with two other closely related movements in American history – first, the invention of modern advertising, at the first moments when instead of scrambling to meet consumer needs and demands, a manufacturer’s task was to produce users, to produce demand for his steadily-growing supply and second, the discovery of germs between 1879 and 1900, which produced a cause years before the solution of antibiotics in 1928 (Warner 2001). Without a way to kill germs, progressive-era Americans aimed to control them – leading, in part, to a rise in disposable personal products, including sanitary napkins, paper collars, and disposable tableware (Torres 1998).

This series of posts will evaluate the birth and life of the paper cup in terms of these contemporary social movements – public sanitation and the rise of commodity culture. Paper cups did not sell themselves. They were the subject of an extensive public-health campaign, conducted as much by public health officials as by manufacturers and their advertising firms. Because the paper cup was developed as a tool to control disease, I will draw on the work of Susan Sontag (Illness as Metaphor) to evaluate the social structures that determined how sickness was understood and sick individuals’ places in American society. I will then discuss the invention of a culture of waste, examine how a paper cup is made, the environmental impact of its creation and the consequences of its disposal. Finally, I will visit the paper cup’s cousins, the polystyrene cup and the water bottle, and discuss how some of the discourses that contributed to the paper cup’s rise continue in public water policy in the United States.

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  1. Pingback: A Social History of the Paper Cup Part IV | Food in the Library

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