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The rich history, and intense American-ness, of the portable coffee cup.

portable coffee cup

True Patriots Take Their Coffee to Go. 

 Jul 1, 2015.


You don’t get coffee to go in Paris. It simply isn’t done.

But when I was 16 and living abroad for the first time, I didn’t know any better. I missed my life back in the States, my friends, my siblings. Most of all, I missed decent-sized coffee cups that carried more than a few sips’ worth of cappuccino. So around 4 p.m. each day on weekends, I seized the chance to re-create my American coffee runs. I rode the metro to the nearest McCafé or other Americanized faster-food option, bought the biggest size I could find, and took it to go.

(On special occasions, I took a metro to Starbucks and ordered a grande or venti. Drinking a Starbucks in Paris felt really decadent: Not only does a latte there cost the equivalent of $6.50, but carrying around a 16- or 20-ounce paper cup with a Solo Traveler lid in a land of four-ounce espresso-sized china was like driving a Cadillac Escalade amongst Peugeots; it was big, showy, American, and way more expensive because it was exotically large.)

At first, I didn’t know that my disposable coffee cups branded me instantly as an American, as sure a giveaway as white sneakers or a generous waistline. A product of my age, I naïvely believed that coffee signaled sophistication and a certain cosmopolitan sensibility. But the reactions of Parisians promptly put me in my place. Something I noticed pretty quickly: When Parisian strangers tell you bon appetit! in the street, they are not in fact wishing you a good meal; instead, they are sarcastically putting you down for pigging out in public.

The experience of getting coffee to go is a uniquely American institution, and it has changed the way we work, play, and present ourselves to the world.

There is a reason for this: Café culture is deeply ingrained in French life. To eat on the go, or in a public space, is distasteful—a refutation of the old ways of doing things. Parisians police their food-free public spaces in order to keep their private dining establishments, and their rich gastronomical culture, alive.

But I had my own cultural tenets to honor. I stuck to my 4 p.m. coffee break. I continued to carry around my mobile cup of joe. In an unfamiliar city, a paper cup of coffee was a source of solace—an affordable yet indulgent reminder of who I was, and where I came from.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the to-go cup that I enjoyed on afternoons in Paris wasn’t a foreign concept just in France. Even the briefest search on Google shows that other cultures are similarly bereft of portable caffeine options. We’re the country that invented the disposable cup, the fast food chain, and the egregiously inflated cup size. The experience of getting coffee to go is a uniquely American institution, and it has changed the way we work, play, and present ourselves to the world.

The American-ness of the to-go cup may not be immediately intuitive, simply because coffee has long been overshadowed in the American beverage-packing realm by the beer bottle and the soda can. We take it for granted that a modern Independence Day barbecue will involve Sam Adams and Cherry Coke prominently—yet we forget that in colonial times, coffee and tea were the poor man’s substitute for beer and cider. Post-World War II, after Coca-Cola had arranged a special exemption from the sugar ration, Coke became the caffeine source of choice for America’s youth.

But by rights we ought to enjoy our Fourth of July fireworks with a steaming cup of coffee. Even before Americans had invented the disposable cup, we were changing history by fueling up with coffee on the go. Pioneers brought coffee with them to settle the West, brewing it over campfires; coffee became especially popular following the tea shortage during the War of 1812. Native Americans developed a taste for coffee, and would even attack wagon trains to get it, according to historian Mark Pendergrast. When coffee was added to the Union soldiers’ daily ration during the Civil War, they developed a creative solution for carrying it into combat. Some carbine guns were re-fashioned to hold a coffee mill in the buttstock—“so that the soldier could always carry his grinder with him,” Pendergrast writes. Perhaps the cannons should have had cup-holders.

In the process of adopting the to-go cup, we told stories about ourselves.

Clearly, our passion for having fresh coffee wherever we are has shaped American history. But when the disposable to-go cup debuted, it also changed modern American culture. The earliest of these—the “Health Kup,” later re-named Dixie—was intended to reform school drinking fountains, which had previously featured a single tin dipper that everyone drank from. American entrepreneurs improved upon the design with an astounding number of innovations: the coffee vending machine; the polystyrene foam cup; the tearable coffee lid; the pull-back tab; and many other impressive versions of the coffee lid.

In the midst of all these refurbishments, our to-go coffee culture fostered rituals that celebrated the American ideals of working hard and playing hard. It was the Pan American Coffee Bureau that invented the “coffee break” in a 1952 campaign, thereby giving us a socially sanctioned reason to leave the cubicle and grab a latte to go. The Bureau also created the notion of getting “one for the road” as a safety measure to keep us from falling asleep on America’s Interstate Highway System. Coffee gave an edge to great Americans who drove too much and toiled too hard.

In the process of adopting the to-go cup, we told stories about ourselves. Coffee cups, like so many other consumer products, described who we wanted to be as much as who we were. In 1963, the Sherri Cup Company designed a cup that featured the colors of the Greek flag and stereotypically Hellenic designs. It became “the most successful cup in history,” according to the New York Times, and appears prominently in NYPD Blue, Mad Men, and Law & Order, among others, as a symbol of New York, its immigrant population, an its love of coffee. Was the signature slogan, “We Are Happy to Serve You,” truly an apt descriptor of New York service culture? Maybe not, but it was a nice gesture.

When Starbucks came around, some people got cynical about the culture our disposable cups were reflecting. In his book Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America Through Starbucks, historian Bryant Simon writes that the Starbucks craze in the nineties and early aughts, a sign of our pre-recession interest in buying coffee as a fashion statement, indicated how “consumer-citizens [were] hoping to purchase our way to happiness and salvation.” The “Starbucks moment” he describes turned a coffee cup into a status symbol, even though the chain could sometimes be as trashy as Arby’s: Let us not forget the 2011 debut of the trenta, a super-sized cold cup that exceeds the capacity of the human stomach.

But I prefer to be a little less hard on Starbucks than some, perhaps because the Seattle-hating moment has passed. These days, post-recession and freshly aware of environmental dangers, we carry Thermoses, even if they take up precious space in our bags. Coffee shops routinely give us meager, but important, discounts to incentivize re-using cups or bringing our own. Fashion cups like I Am Not a Paper Cup have emerged to meet our new, sustainability-minded culture while honoring the to-go cup’s timeless all-American design.

Abroad, too, our coffee business has become a little more culturally aware. The last time I lived in France, in 2012, American coffee was a little more hip. The French Starbucks carried smaller, higher-end pastries and a new “blonde” espresso that successfully muted the chain’s signature, slightly burnt taste. This more overtly “French” approach coincided with the targeted globalization of fast-food brands like McDonald’s, which had just debuted the McBaguette. The country felt somehow more welcoming to my 4 p.m. coffee habit.

By this time, France had already begun its ongoing push to be nicer to tourists post-recession. When I asked to take it à emporter, some shopkeepers, many of whom didn't have the disposable paraphernalia to accommodate it, improvised. The man who made me espresso at the kebab café nearest my apartment kept giving me soup lids because he didn’t have any for coffee.

Unlikely Patriots is our series of essays for July 4th that celebrates surprising, forgotten, and/or contrarian expressions of love for one's country.


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