The world would be a different place if not for plastic cups. These cups are found at stadiums and professional sporting games, picnics and even used around the house in different areas such as the bathroom. The history of plastic cups dates back to the 1960s, but prior to their invention, people used paper cups in a similar fashion.

Healthcare professional with patient
credit: Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images
Many public places, such as hospitals, rely on the safety of plastic cups.

Dixie Cups

The precursor to the modern-day plastic cup was Dixie Cups, first manufactured in 1908. The company saw a need for a disposable cup and completely changed the way people drank. Prior to the invention of these cups, people drank from communal cups or water barrels where they were susceptible to the germs and illnesses of others. These cups contained a small wax coating on the inside that prevented spilling, but were made of paper.

Single-Serve Cups

From the moment Dixie Cups were first introduced, they became a success. The railroads, which previously used barrels of water that passengers dipped their own cups into, switched to the disposable cups. Not long after, hospitals also made the switch to paper cups. This prevented cross-contamination and prevented illnesses from spreading among their patients. These same groups switched to foam cups after their invention, but eventually chose plastic as it was less harmful to the environment.

Plastic Cups in the 1960s

In the 1960s the first patent for a plastic cup in the United States was issued to a group known only as Price et al. The patent itself was only for a cup and was issued in 1964. Prior to that, a man by the name of Caine patented his idea for a thin-walled plastic container. Essentially this container was the plastic cup, but by not listing it as such, he opened the door for others to trademark and patent their own version of the plastic cup.

1990s Plastic Cup Patent Frenzy

The 1990s saw more patents registered for plastic cups than in any other decade. In 1996 Wilson patented the idea of a ribbed beverage glass made of plastic and a ribbed tumbler made of plastic. These pieces were heavier and more durable than the disposable plastic cups. In 1997 Willbrandt registered a patent for a plastic cup that fit inside the cup holder of a car, and in 1999 two patents were registered for plastic cups: Jarvis registered a dimpled tumbler and Hou registered a drinking tumbler.

Manufacturing Process

The manufacturing process of these cups begins with raw plastic, which is specially treated to remove any dirt or bacteria. It's then heated to a specific temperature and poured into molds. The temperature is especially important because if the plastic is too hot or too cold it can burn or turn to hardened plastic. New technologies have made it possible for assembly lines to mass produce thousands of cups in a single hour. Once the cups are dry, they're ready for packing, storing and shipping.