The Coolest Straw I Ever Saw at American History

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They are everywhere. Those quirky, bendy straws that make the satisfying crunching sound when flexed. They are in every soft drink, every restaurant… even when we don’t ask for them, those bendable straws magically appear in front of us. They’re one of the most undistinguished of utilitarian items of our time, yet few have surely ever paused to think about how they came to be.

Thankfully, for all those now hung-up on the history of the FlexStraw, the American History Museum has slurped up some straw stats to quench your thirst for knowledge.

The FlexStraw owes its existence to Joseph B. Friedman, (1900 - 1982) an independent American inventor, who came up with numerous interesting ideas that never really succeeded in the marketing world. When he was just 14, his list of inventions included an ice cream dispenser and the “pencilite"—a pencil with a light—creations that eventually granted him nine U.S. patents and even more in Great Britain, Australia and Canada. However, it was while working as a realtor in San Francisco, California in the 1930s, that Friedman experienced his most "prolific patenting period," according to the museum. Six of his nine U.S. patents were issued then, one proving to be his most successful invention—our friend, the flexible drinking straw.

His “Eureka!” moment came when he was in an ice cream parlor with his young daughter, Judith. The tiny girl was struggling to get some height on a stiff straw while seated at the counter. Friedman had an idea. He began to experiment with an upgrade.

Pencil sketch of flexible drinking straw, no date.

According to the  Archives Center at the American History Museum, Friedman took a paper straight straw, inserted a screw and using dental floss, wrapped the paper into the screw threads, creating corrugations (see drawing at right). After removing the screw, the altered paper straw would bend conveniently over the edge of the glass, allowing small children, including his daughter Judith, to better reach their beverages. A U.S. patent was issued for this new invention under the title “Drinking Tube,” on September 28, 1937. Friedman attempted to sell his straw patent to several existing straw manufacturers beginning in 1937 without success, so after completing his straw machine, he began to produce the straw himself.

Today, from 12 to 12:30, you can see the machine that was used to make the FlexStraw, samples of the straw, and other items from the exhibit, "The Straight Truth About the Flexible Drinking Straw” at the “Meet the Museum” event held most Thursdays at the museum.

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