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The fascinating history of the paper cup

In the early 20th century, the paper cup emerged as a life-saving technology and continues to uphold its values of health and safety to this day. As the world grapples with the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, cleanliness and safety have become paramount concerns. While paper cups may not seem directly related to the current situation at first glance, delving into their history reveals their significance as a hygienic choice born out of a similar crisis.

The origins of the modern paper cup can be traced back to the aftermath of the American Civil War. During the early 1900s, as the temperance movement gained momentum in the US, drinking water became increasingly popular as a healthy alternative to alcoholic beverages. Water was readily available in schools, fountains, and on trains and wagons, often served using communal cups or dippers made of metal, wood, or ceramic.

However, the use of communal cups raised concerns about public health and the spread of diseases. In response to these worries, a Boston lawyer named Lawrence Luellen developed a disposable two-piece cup made of paper in 1907. Around the same time, Dr. Samuel Crumbine, a prominent figure in public health, began campaigning against the use of common cups as part of his fight against tuberculosis. Driven by these shared concerns, Luellen’s brother-in-law, Hugh Moore, introduced Dr. Crumbine to the prototype paper cup, which led to the creation of the American Water Supply Company of New England. Together, they initiated efforts to dispense individual servings of water using a tall porcelain cooler they had developed. Building on this, the duo launched an advertising campaign to promote the health benefits of disposable drinking cups, ultimately resulting in a US patent for Luellen’s paper cup in 1912.

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which claimed millions of lives worldwide, further emphasized the importance of hygienic practices. Disposable paper cups gained even greater recognition as a means to prevent the spread of germs. Throughout the 1930s, the design of paper cups evolved, including the invention of cups with handles to mimic mugs used for hot beverages and the introduction of the Solo Cup, a paper cone.

In 1942, a study conducted by the Massachusetts State College revealed that using single-service paper cups was more cost-effective and reduced the risk of cross-infection compared to sanitizing glassware for reuse in hospitals. This finding led to the adoption of paper cups in healthcare settings. Additionally, in the 1960s, Huhtamaki began manufacturing paper cups in Finland, further contributing to their widespread use.

Over the years, paper cups have adapted to food trends and consumer preferences. In the 1980s, the popularity of specialty coffees like cappuccinos and lattes influenced the design of disposable cups. Nowadays, paper cups serve not only hot and cold beverages such as coffee and tea but also various food items, including ice creams and soups. Whether in offices, fast food restaurants, or large events, paper cups have become ubiquitous.

In emerging economies, rising incomes, busy lifestyles, and long working hours have led to a shift from non-disposable utensils to paper cups for the sake of convenience. These sterile cups are suitable for consuming fast food items like noodles and soups, as well as beverages such as tea and carbonated drinks.

Looking towards the 21st century, innovative solutions are being developed to reduce the environmental impact of paper cups and provide consumers with more sustainable choices. For instance, Huhtamaki’s Future Smart™ paper cup is the first 100% renewable cup made from plant-based materials. These cups are suitable for both hot and cold drinks, as well as food. Partnerships are being formed to enhance the recycling of paper cups.

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