The Unnatural History of the Dixie Cup

The product was a life-saving technology that avoided the transmission of disease from communal “tin dippers”

Jacqueline Moen

The Dixie Cup, the Kleenex of paper cups, the ubiquitous, single-serving, individual drinking vessel, was never meant to be shared. The paper cups were not built to last. Drink. Toss. Repeat.

Their story starts with a Boston inventor named Lawrence Luellen, who crafted a two-piece cup made out of a blank of paper. He joined the American Water Supply Company, the brainchild of a Kansas-born Harvard dropout named Hugh Moore. The two began dispensing individual servings of water for a penny—one cent for a five-ounce cup from a tall, clumsy porcelain water cooler.

Soon they were the Individual Drinking Cup Company of New York and had renamed their sole product the Health Kup, a life-saving drinking technology that could help prevent the transmission of communicable disease and aid the campaign to do away with free water offered at communal cups, “tin dippers,” found in public buildings and railway stations. Make no mistake, because of this scourge, one biologist reported in a 1908 article, there was “Death in School Drinking Cups.”

Yet it wasn’t health that ultimately paved the way for the disposable paper cup’s ubiquity and commercial immortality. One day, Moore stopped in at the Dixie Doll Company and asked the dollmaker if he could borrow their name for his cup, because, apparently, the vessels were now as reliable as old ten-dollar bills (dixies, from the French dix) issued by Louisiana prior to the Civil War, according to Anne Cooper Funderburg’s account in Sundae Best. The cup’s reputation was further cemented when soda fountains introduced an automatic machine to that could fill a cup with two flavors of ice cream at the same time, ushering in paper-wrapped wooden scoops and disposable cups known as Ice Cream Dixies.

Dixie cups offer something at once refreshing and profoundly sobering, a pioneering product that ushered in the wave of single-use items—razors, aerosolized cans, pens, bottles of water and the paper cups you can find at doctor’s offices, backyard barbecues and, of course, the office water cooler.

Drawing: Lawrence W. Luellen, 1912. Drinking Cup. Us Patent 1032557.

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