Peter Takes on History
January 3, 1888
Happy Drinking Straw Day!
I want to talk about the Pleistocene Era, using Lambeau Field for a little perspective.
Let's say our species is a return specialist standing just in front of the goal line. He catches the kick off and decides to run it back because this bipedal hominin sees a gap in the defense and it’s only 2.5 million years to the opposite end zone. He tucks the ball away and takes off.
By the time he crosses his own 16 yard line, his prefrontal cortex is half again larger, he’s using stone and bone tools and venturing out of Africa.
By the time he reaches midfield, 1.25 million years out, he’s learned to control fire.
By the time he’s in Field Goal range, his brain has doubled in size, he’s totally Homo Erectus, hunting and gathering his way to the Red Zone.
Crossing the five yard hash mark, a mere 150,000 years out, he’s wrapped in skins and developing a rudimentary proto language.
But it’s not until about a foot and a half out, just 40,000 years ago, he started doing cave paintings, sewing socks and throwing pots.
Eighteen inches later, he breaks the plane, completes his Run to Daylight as a totally modern homo sapien, ready to make that Lambeau Leap into the Stone Age!
It is widely believed that our ancestors retired from the game to settle down on a few acres in the fertile crescent, domesticate a dog, raise some grain and get into home brewing.
Anthropologists point to 13,000 year old archaeological evidence of fermentation found in middle-eastern caves. Brewing beer may predate baking bread. Some sociologists claim the mildly intoxicating qualities of this weak, early beverage might also have been critical to sorting out societal structure by livening up conversations and allowing members of the tribe to temporarily cast off inhibitions (at least until Sunday morning).
Beer was a portable, potable source of nutrition and refreshment even used as currency by some ancients. Records indicate gig workers on the Great Pyramids at Giza got paid in beer.
Now, ancient brews were not something cold and clear from the “land of sky blue waters.” The starter was a tub of rain-soaked grain, warmed by a fire where natural yeast in the air would trigger fermentation. Then the brewmaster would chuck in anything for flavor: fruits, honey, plants, spices, even narcotic herbs.
And before the days of beer bottling, ancients would simply drink directly from the containers used in brewing, avoiding the viscous gruel on the bottom of the barrel by using long, long straws. There are tomb paintings of Pharaohs with straws and Mesopotamian merry-makers drinking with straws. The oldest drinking straw, made of gold and lapis lazuli, was found in a Sumerian tomb from 3,000 B.C.
Over the millenia beverages like beer and wine were filtered and refined but straws, though no longer strictly necessary, remained popular.
For most of recorded history, straws were just that; straw. Dried stems or stalks left after the threshing of grains and grasses; particularly rye grass but rye grass has a problem. Taste.
So let’s fast forward several thousand years to the Washington DC home of one Marvin Stone. Marvin’s relaxing with his afternoon cocktail, cursing the musty, earthy taste of rye grass that was ruining his Mint Julep when he had an idea.
Mr. Stone grabbed a piece of sturdy paper, wrapped it around a pencil and glued the seam. Once he slid the pencil out, he was left with an eight and a half inch long paper tube that would serve as the prototype required for the filing of a US patent.
On this Day in History, January 3, 1888, Marvin Stone received a patent for his "artificial straw." That’s why today is National Straw Day.
Mr. Stone became wealthy making and selling paper straws, a product that ruled the straw market until after WWII when plastic drinking straws were invented. Individually wrapped, plastic straws were considered more sanitary than paper, an important consideration when our national pastimes included both sharing fountain drinks and avoiding polio.
But now we’re seeing that plastic is a problem and straws contribute! There are estimates that nearly 500 million plastic straws are discarded daily! That’s why in 2021 the EU banned plastic drinking straws and there are efforts to do the same here. But the goal isn’t necessarily to get back to Marvin Stone’s paper straws. There are a number of up and coming firms that market biodegradable eco-friendly straws made from, you guessed it, straw!
Happy National Straw Day!