Canadian Packaging

History of the disposable paper cup

By Andrew Joseph, Canadian Packaging Features Editor   

Automation Design & Innovation Food Safety Bottling Paperboard Packaging disposable paper cups Dix Cups Dixie Cup Company Dixie cups Dixie Doll Company Georgia-Pacific Koch Industries packaged water Packaging history paper packaging Saul Bass Stanpac

Not merely whistling Dixie, let's take a healthy look at the origin of the disposable paper cup.

In the upcoming July/August issue of Canadian Packaging magazine, we will have an article written by Andrew Joseph on Stanpac, a major Canadian manufacturer of paperboard packaging for the ice-cream industry.

We all know that small disposable paper cups are used for ice-cream containers, or ketchup containers at fast-food restaurants, or of course, the disposable drinking cup, but where did the concept of utilizing paper was a packaging container originate?

Believe it or not, we go back to 1908 in New England, where one man tried to market packaged water.

Though we take it for granted nowadays, a mere 106 years ago, water obtained from many sources was never as healthy as it could be.


In 1908, two men from Boston—a lawyer named Lawrence Luellen and salesman Hugh Moore—conceived of a vending machine that would, for one penny, dispense a cup of pure, chilled drinking water.

The machine featured three compartments: an upper chamber for ice; the middle chamber for water; and the lower area to hold disposable paper cups.

Luellen seems to be the inventor, and originally formed a company to manufacture a flat-folded paper drinking cup, but eventually realized it would be more practical to have the vending machine dispense an open cup rather than one that had to be unfolded by the consumer each time it was used. As such, Luellen created a one-piece pleated cup, made of a circular blank of paper that was treated with paraffin to hold the folds in place.

Luellen then conceived of a two-piece cup made from a paper blank that would be rolled into a ‘frusto-conical’ with a separate bottom piece. With help from Eugene H. Taylor, an engineer and inventor at Taylor Machine Works in Boston, they built a manufacture these cups.

Luellen also created the vending machine to dispense the water for a penny (one-cent) via his American Water Supply Company of New England, beginning on April 4, 1908.

Because the capital investment for the one-piece cup was too high, it was decided to manufacture only the lower-cost two-piece, smooth-sided cup.

The vending machines proudly stated that no sanitary cup was ever re-used, which might anger some environmentalists nowadays, but back then, no one seemed bothered.

Because of attempts to slow down or eliminate the rampant consumption of alcohol amongst New Yorkers by many an abolitionist, New York saw many of the first water vending machines set-up along transfer points of the New York City trolley (street car) lines—their placement was to prevent (hopefully) people from stopping off at the local bar or saloon to get drunk—it didn’t seem to work.

In fact, saloon-goer or  not, no one seemed all that bothered to even try the vended water—why bother to pay for water, when one could simply go down to a watering hole – literally a water pump featuring a shared tin sipping cup – and get a free drink?

Just as no one in 1980 could ever foresee a day people would pay for bottled water when there was perfectly good water available in one’s kitchen, neither did anyone in 1908 see why anyone would pay for perfectly good water available at the public pump.

And, although good clean water was being pumped through the pump, the tin sipper that was never cleaned, was a veritable cesspool of bacteria just waiting to make people ill.

This was just what the doctor ordered, so to speak, as New York public health officer Dr. Samuel Crumbine was trying to get public water sippers banned—just what the water vending company needed—a supporter who agreed that perhaps a disposable paper cup might be the answer.

In 1909, after finally obtaining financial backing from a wealthy but hypochondriac New York banker, the company was rechristened as the Public Cup Vendor Company.

As luck would have it, scientific research seemed to catch on to Dr. Crumbine’s theory or bacteria present on public sippers, and many U.S. states began to ban communal sippers, recommending that people use individual drinking vessels.

Changing the company name to Individual Drinking Cup Company, it saw some success, as schools, offices and railroads began to purchase disposable paper cups—now a symbol of health.

Moore, now president of the company realizing that renamed the company again to Health Kups, which was either a typo or a forerunner of purposely misusing K’s for C’s in advertising and marketing, was a good way to capitalize on the company’s success as a bastion of health.

But he wasn’t done yet.

In 1919, the Health Kups manufacturing facility was located in the same building as the Dixie Doll Company.

Moore was again looking to revamp his company’s place in the public eye, and thought the name Dixie might be interesting.

Dixie, as a term, is based on a New Orlean’s slang-word for a $10-bill… a dix, which is French for ten. The Riverboat men along the Mississippi called them ‘dixies‘, saying they would head down river to pick up some dixies. Look away all you like, that is a real bit of fact.

For Moore, this was the first time he tried inspiration as opposed to public sentiment with a company name to capitalize, and the Dixie Cup Company was born.

It was also around this time, that the ice-cream industry was looking for a way to increase American consumption.

At the time, people could only purchase ice-cream in a bulk package, but could buy many other snack products like candy or soda in individual packs.

Moore’s Dixie Cup Company created the 2.5-ounce paper cup with a pull-up lid that fit within a locking grove that circled the inside of the cup, and the individual-size ice-cream pack was born.

Since we are talking packaging, Saul Bass is credited with creating the Dixie Cup logo back in 1969. With an average shelf life of 34 years, the main cause for the demise of any logo created by Bass appears to be the demise of the company itself.

Bass is also an animator, and while his most recent work can be found in the title credits of such movies as 2002’s Catch Me If You Can; X-Men: First Class (2011) or TV’s Mad Men opening credits, and created the movie posters for such iconic films as: It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963); Vertigo (1958); Anatomy Of A Murder (1959); The Shining (1980) and more.

While the product brand(s) remain unchanged, the Dixie Cup Company merged with the American Can Company in 1957; the James River Corporation purchased the paper business of American Can Company in 1982; and, the assets of the James River Corporation are now part of Georgia-Pacific, a pulp and paper manufacturer and distributor. Georgia-Pacific is a subsidiary of Koch Industries, the second-largest privately-owned company in the U.S.


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