Rarity, intrinsically valuable materials, cultural tie-ins, history – there are actually very few factors that promote interest in the collectibility of an item. There is one, however, that has an almost immediate effect, and that is a government ban.
Remember those lawn darts with the flesh-puncturing metal tips that were banned in 1988, and are now generally selling in the secondary markets for $25 to $75+, depending on the completeness of the set? Or, how about Clackers (aka Super Clackers, Ker-Bangers, etc.), banned in 1976 because the hard acrylic balls that were banged together would sometimes shatter into hazardous projectiles? Examples in original packaging now fetch up to $75+ at online auction sites.
For some time now, plastic drinking straws have come under fire for their potential harm to the environment. A number of companies have begun to replace them with biodegradable substitutes, and numerous jurisdictions in the U.S. have moved to ban their sale and use. For now, they remain readily available to collectors who appreciate the potential panoply of this category, but should the federal government decide to issue a ban…
The first straws were, in all probability, the hollow stalks (reeds) of various grasses, but the earliest example we have of a straw was found in a 5000-year-old Sumerian tomb. A long, gold tube inlaid with lapis lazuli, it was surmised to have allowed the drinking of beer from a container by avoiding the concomitant by-products of the fermentation process.
The majority of straws continued to be made of either plant material or metal until the 19th century, though designs were adapted to serve different functions. One such was the “tea-drinking straw” which possessed a small sieve at its bottom to prevent the imbibing of tea leaves. Two Civil War-era examples, both fashioned of silver, recently sold at an online auction site for $65 and $104.50, respectively.
Rye-grass straws, though common, had the tendency to turn to mush when submerged in liquids for too long, affecting taste. It was one such incident that led Marvin C. Stone, inventor of a machine that made paper cigarette holders, to patent in 1888 the design for what we recognize as the modern paper straw.
Other notable advancements in straw design include the flexible (“bendy”) straw patented by Joseph Friedman in 1937. Utilizing a “concertina”-type hinge, the straw provided access to a beverage at a more comfortable angle for children, and became so popular in hospitals – where patients were confined to beds – that it quickly supplanted the fragile bent glass straws that required repeated sterilization.
The post-World War II period was witness to the tremendous growth of the plastics industry, and though paper straws have continued to be made, plastic straws – easy and extremely inexpensive to produce – in all shapes, sizes, and colors have flooded the world’s markets.
One of the first to utilize the unique attributes of plastic was Milton Dinhofer, a co-creator of the Barrel of Monkeys game. His invention of the twisted, plastic straw in the early 1950s led to the popular Sip-N-See series. Packaged singly, and with a variety of figures including a cowboy, elephant, and clown, over six million units were sold. Not every unit was used, rinsed, reused, and ultimately thrown away. Specimens often appear online at auction sites where one “1952 Sip-n-See action drinking straw in original packaging” recently changed hands for $19.99.
Small, lightweight, and amazingly varied, straws provide the perfect opportunity for interested individuals to amass and display their unique and varied collections. From the stainless steel, aluminum, and titanium specimens used by campers to the bamboo, glass, silicone, and paper units attempting to supplant plastic, most specimens remain affordable. Cross-collectibles can push prices up a bit – someone recently paid $20 for Marcal paper straws in a vintage box decorated with a clown graphic, while another individual forked over $86.01 for a less-than-perfect box of original double-dot Pepsi paper straws – but many straws – especially the endangered plastic variety – can be had for pennies.
If you’d like to learn more about this still underappreciated collectible, check out the resources listed here:
A Brief History of How Plastic Straws Took Over the World (National Geographic) – From an environmental standpoint.
Drinking straws from start to finish – This page with accompanying videos explains how plastic straws are made.
How the Drinking Straw Created a Fairer America – Australian take on the American invention.
The Straight Truth About the Flexible Drinking Straw – Illustrates the genius behind the “tweak” to the paper straw.