Gabriel Ryan, School Health Blog Writer and Contributor
I was honestly grasping at straws, no pun intended here, to come up with topic for this month’s Access Angle. Then, as I focused on the beverage I was drinking, an idea came to me. Of course…it was right in front of me… the bendy drinking straw! I am frequently using bendy straws and always have some with me in my backpack. Surely, I am not the only one who gets excited when a restaurant happens to have a bendy straw!
Do you know the history behind the bendy straw? Let’s start with a basic definition. A drinking straw is a paper, plastic, or edible[EP1] [RR2] tube that people use to bring liquids to the mouth. A variation for the straight plastic straw is the bendy straw, or articulated straw. The bendy straw is designed to be more flexible with a bend at the top.
In 1937 an inventor named Joseph Friedman patented the bendy straw. His reason for inventing a straw like this was to assist his young daughter, but little did he know that this tool would continue to be used for decades by people all over the world.
“One day in the 1930s, while sitting in his brother’s fountain parlor, the Varsity Sweet Shop, in San Francisco, Joseph B. Friedman (1900-1982) watched his young daughter Judith at the counter struggling to drink a milkshake out of a straight paper straw. Friedman, an inventor with a natural curiosity and a creative instinct, took the straw and inserted a screw. He then wrapped dental floss around the paper into the screw threads, creating corrugations. After he removed the screw, the altered paper straw would bend conveniently over the edge of the glass, allowing a small child to better reach the beverage. U.S. patent number 2,094,268 was issued for this new invention, under the title Drinking Tube, on September 28, 1937.” --- Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, The Straight Truth About the Flexible Drinking Straw, 6/1/2002 Broda-Bahm.
A few more interesting facts that were part of this research:
- “In 1939, Friedman formed the Flexible Straw Corporation, later named Flex-Straw Company, and by the late 1940s he began producing the straws with machinery he created.”
- “The Flex-Straw was well-received by hospitals, whose patients could easily position the straw for drinking while lying down, without compromising the flow of liquids. Friedman’s first sale was made to a hospital in 1947.”
According to the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, one of their archivists had the opportunity to meet the inventor’s daughter, Judith, in 2000. Judith had held onto several boxes in her garage which contained detailed documentation of the inventions of her father, including the bendy straw. She gave these to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to preserve the process and thinking behind the inventions.
My love for bendy straw goes far beyond the sometimes-bright colors or creating fun loops if using the extra length style. Without the use of a straw, I have to rely on someone else to physically bring a drink to my mouth. Don’t get me wrong, I can use a regular straight straw, however, using bendy straws allows me even more independence when drinking a beverage. I can more easily reach the straw to my mouth at the angle that works best for my arms, hands, and neck, which have limited range of motion. I consider it a basic necessity.
Over the last several years there has been a global conversation about not having plastic straws altogether due to the environmental impact and the effect plastics have on the oceans and animals. Some major U.S. cities and restaurants are looking to implement bans on plastic straw use. Many businesses have transitioned to using paper straws or eliminated providing straws to consumers. Many consumers have started using silicone and metal reusable straws as an alternative. The high priority on the environmental concerns and reducing plastic pollution is extremely important. Finding the balance of reducing waste, while still making strides in universal supports is challenging.
The paper, silicone, and metal straws are great alternatives for some people, however for me and those I know with limited upper body flexibility, the paper straws break down before I can finish my drink. Using paper, hard silicone, or metal can often be too rigid, or at the wrong angle for a fixed bend. Sometimes the texture can affect successful lip closure and ability to suck through the straw. In my research for this article, I came across a National Public Radio (NPR) segment which aired on 7/11/18, “Why people with disabilities want bans on plastic straws to be more flexible”, NPR Morning Edition, Danovich/Godoy.
This audio clip/article provides a perspective for consideration related to disability and bans on straws. Aside from drinking beverages, the bendy straw is used by Speech Language Pathologists and Occupational Therapists. They are often working with clients on vocal fatigue, lip closure, sucking and swallowing, respiratory strengthening, and much more. Many examples and videos can be found online for strategies that involve a straw. Products like Whistling Straws look similar to bendy straws and were designed to serve as a tool to strengthen lips and cheeks by encouraging the user to blow air through the straw for breath support. This tool can also be used to work on other oral therapy related goals.
The bendy straw has been around for almost a century, such a small tool with an enormous impact. At this rate I don’t think we will see the… last straw… any time soon.