If you’ve ever cleaned up after a kegger or done drink duty at an office party, you’ve seen them—the red Solo cups that are Americans’ receptacle of choice for beverages both alcoholic and non. Today, the iconic cup’s inventor, Robert Leo Hulseman, died at age 84, shining a spotlight on the red workhorses of the disposable plastic world. But how did they come into being?
The story of the Solo cup begins with the rise of disposable cups in the early 20th century. As Smithsonian.com’s Peter Smith explains, disposable cups came into vogue during a scourge of communicable disease spread by the practice of sharing water dippers and communal cups in public places. When the public realized that disposable cups weren’t germ-ridden disease vectors, they flocked to early manufacturers like the Dixie Cup Corporation.
One of Dixie’s employees was Leo Hulseman, Robert's father. In 1936, Leo ventured out on his own and founded the Paper Container Manufacturing Company in Chicago. By that time, paper cups were all the rage. The company soon created a signature item, but it wasn’t red or even round. Rather, it was a cone cup used to drink from water coolers that had also become ubiquitous in public places—especially offices—after the health scares of the early 20th century. The so-called Solo Cups’ popularity prompted the company to rename itself.
Solo went on to make other innovations in disposable cups, creating disposable coffee cups and the first wax-lined cups that are now common in fast food restaurants and at movie theaters. But their real coup came in the 1970s, when Leo’s son invented a sturdy party cup. As Slate's Seth Stevenson reports, the cup quickly became popular for its sturdy design, resilient materials, opacity and large capacity. Solo cups were also available in blue, but a Solo executive tells Stevenson that red far outsells any other color.
Since then, Solo cups have become a party icon. Earlier versions had ridges that could be used to measure liquid and are surprisingly accurate for mixing cocktails. Some substance abuse educators even suggest that college students use the lines to monitor their alcohol consumption. Knockoffs are ubiquitous, including miniature ones intended for shots or very tiny games of beer pong. And country star Toby Keith even recorded a popular ( and weirdly addictive) musical homage to the cup in 2011.
“It's the stupidest song I ever heard in my life," he told The Boot in 2014. "[B]ut it’s so stupid it’s good."
These days, though, you might not recognize much about the once-familiar red cups. First of all, there is no longer a Solo Company per se. In 2012, Dart Container Corporation acquired Solo–but its iconic cups still bear the first company’s name. And Solo cups got grips in 2004 and a square shape in 2009—a designed change intended to, in the company’s words, ensure “a more comfortable and reliable hold.”
Hulseman’s death may be the end of an era for cup-o-vation, but it’s unlikely Solo cups will die any time soon. Though both Solo and Dart—both privately held companies—are notoriously silent about their sales figures, you need only head toward your local frat house or company picnic for a reminder that in America, red party cups are where it’s at. So raise a plastic glass to the man who made it all happen and made his subtle mark on American parties for decades.