The earliest civilization ever discovered was Sumer, in the area between between the Tigris River and the Euphrates River, in modern day Iran. The people who lived there (Sumerians) developed "the wheel, copper, bronze, the arch, sailboats, lunar calendars, sundials, saws, chisels, hammers, rivets, sickles, hoes, glue (bitumen), swords and scabbards, harnesses, armor, musical instruments (the lyre and harp), chariots, the kiln, sun-dried and kiln-fired bricks (mixed with straw to give them greater strength), the pottery wheel, printing, plows, metal cooking pots, and (last but not least) beer, says histlong narrow drinking straw made of goldorian Jerald Jack Starr. This very long list omits two of the greatest developments of Sumer: writing (the Sumerians invented cuneiform writing) and the drinking straw.

Queen Puabi of Sumer, like all Sumerians, drank beer brewed from the local grain. And like all Sumerians, Queen Puabi didn't like the chaff and flotsam that floated around in her beer. Most Sumerians probably sipped their beer through a piece of natural, hollow, dry grass straw taken from grasses, growing like the rye pictured above right. But Queen Puabi royally sipped her royal beer through a four foot long gold royal drinking tube inlaid with lapis lazuli, pictured at left.

Fast-forward across five thousand years and two or three continents to the Southern United States, summer time, in the years around 1800. The mint julep, a concoction of crushed ice, mint, sugar and bourbon, was becoming more and more popular, according to an 1803 publication. Mint juleps tended to have bits of mint floating in them, and thus were drunk with a straw made of the same rye (above right) that was used to create the whiskey with which the cocktail was made. (You can read Jill Nicolas's article about mint juleps here.)

An inventor and businessman by the name of Marvin Chester Stone found drinking his mint julep particularly troublesome. The piece of straw he was drinking it through kept getting mushy, and if he didn't use the straw, the nasty little shreds of mint would ruin the experience for him. His drink was also starting to taste like the grass the straw came from.

Now Stone was the owner of a company which manufactured papers for a gentleman to roll his Spanish-style cigar-ettes from his own personal stash of tobacco. (No lady would smoke, at least not in public.) So inventor Stone took some cigarette paper and wound it around a straw, gluing it together. He tried this drinking tube on his mint julep, and found it much improved.

Next, Stone used wax-coated paper and found the result better still. He patented his invention in 1888 and started production at his cigarette paper factory. By 1890, his factory made more straws than cigarette papers. The Stone Straw Corporation still makes straws of all types as well as a myriad of other "food service products."

Then in 1937, nearly 50 years after the invention of the paper drinking straw, another inventor named Joseph P. Friedman took his four-year old daughter for a milkshake at his brother's soda fountain in San Francisco. The little girl was not tall enough to drink her milkshake out of its (straight) straw. Friedman saw a need for a different type of drinking straw, which could be drunk by people who were not above the height of the straw.

He took home some paper straws to experiment with, and using a metal screw and dental floss, created grooves in a waxed-paper straw which enabled it to bend without breaking. In his own words, from the 1937 patent on the flexible drinking straw, "a view of any soda fountain on a hot day , with the glasses showing innumerable limp and broken straws drooping over the edges thereof, will immediately show that this problem has long existed." After World War Two, Friedman finally had the backing to start his own factory, and the Flex-Straw Corporation was born.Bendable plastic straw

Although they were originally marketed as particularly suitable for children and hospital patients, bendable drinking straws quickly became ubiquitous. Eventually, like nearly everything in our lives, straws started being made out of plastic. Recent years have seen straws which are long and twisty, short and doubled, wide enough for a thick ice cream-milkshake or so narrow that you need two or three of them to suck anything up. There are straws which change color with the temperature of the liquid and straws which have flavors which are released into the passing liquid. Straws now are attached to the side of boxes of juice and milk. Plastic straws are usually included with every beverage order, and we've all seen servers working with aprons or pockets filled with extra straws. And mothers the world over rely on "sippy cups," reusable plastic cups with straw-type drink sections built in, to teach kids to drink out of cups.

People who are concerned about the presence of plastic near their beverage or wish to cut down on solid waste may request "no straw" at the drive through window. On the other hand, using a straw may cut down on tooth decay and straws do prevent getting hit in the mouth with ice cubes. Dentists advocate drinking coffee, tea, red wine and sugary drinks with a straw to reduce stains on teeth and exposure of tooth enamel to sugars and/or stains from coffee, tea, soda and red wine. Reusable straws are available at reusitStraight plastic straw in unbelievably fresh coconut.com, simplystraws.com and might even be at your local discount store.

Bisphenol A or BPA is a type of plastic, "an industrial chemical that has been used to make certain plastics and resins since the 1960s," says the Mayo Clinic. Although manufacturers insist BPA is safe to use in canned goods, plastic containers, microwave containers and baby bottles, the FDA continues to investigate its safety. If you wish to avoid using BPA-containing products for yourself or your children--you'll definitely want to use your own straw.

According to Wikipedia, in 2008, the 35th anniversary of the horse Secretariat's winning the Kentucky Derby race, the world's largest mint julep cup was unveiled, at 6 feet tall with a comparably long straw. Maybe Queen Puabi, 5,000 years ago, had the right idea after all!

Links to explore:

Wikipedia

Straw pledge San Diego

Joseph Friedman papers, Smithsonian Institution

Stone Straw Corporation History

Drinking Straw Explained

5,000 years of straws (The Atlantic)

photo credits: thanks to farmerdill, Jerald Jack Starr, Martin Belam (available through Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0) and Carrie Lamont.