On most Saturday nights in college towns across the country, students get ready to party. The one thing all those parties will likely have in common — besides the keg, of course — is a stack of red plastic cups.
The likely creator of those cups, Illinois-based Solo Cup Co., turns 75 this year. While its products have been an American staple for decades, Solo might be best known for the invention of that ubiquitous cup.
The Rise Of The Red Cup
"People make flowers out of these cups," Solo Vice President Kim Healy says. "We had someone that made a full lobster costume out of these cups — head to toe."
Yet the very first Solo cups weren't red. The company was one of the first to market those little paper cone cups you'd see at water coolers back in the 1940s. Until disposable cups came along, it was hard to take a quick drink, Healy says.
The company went on to develop the wax-lined cups you get at drive-in movies and fast-food joints, and in the '60s it developed the Cozy Cup — those plastic teacups that held disposable, cone-shaped cups of coffee.
But nothing has had the impact of the red Solo cup.
Red Cup Pop Culture
Writer Seth Stevenson says his first experience with the Solo cup "was in high school at some keg party we should not have been throwing."
Stevenson waxed nostalgic about the iconic beverage holder in a story for Slate magazine. He's an occasional beer drinker and a big fan of country singer Toby Keith's new song titled "Red Solo Cup."
The song is a pretty cheesy — and addictive — homage to the receptacle. "Red Solo cup, you're more than just plastic, you're more than amazing, you're more than fantastic," Keith sings. Solo didn't pay Keith to write the tune, by the way; it didn't have to. Keith is just one of many who worship at the shrine of the red cup.
"I've seen people use it as a to-go cup," Healy says. "One woman, I watched her make her scrambled eggs in the morning, and she put it in her cup and she said, 'This is how I go to work.'"
When Healy first joined Solo and saw how iconic the party cup was, she says her first inclination was not to change it.
But that's exactly what she did in 2009.
Getting A Grip On Change
"One day, I was walking through the grocery store and I noticed a subtle change," Stevenson recalls. "The red Solo cup had square sides and a square bottom instead of the round one I was used to."
"Suddenly it occurred to me that the red Solo cup has been this ever-present item in my life since I was a teenager — and it had changed."
The shape changed and grips were added, Healy says, because people wanted something sturdier. The new-and-improved cup also doesn't slip out of your hand when beer sloshes over the side.
Plenty of other companies make disposable plastic cups, and though a lot of them are cheaper, Solo's is the one that's become the king of the keggers.
"It is a very well made cup and I think initially that did have to do with its success," Stevenson says. "But I think partly it's just become the standard, and it's just become synonymous with partying and when people go to the store to stock up for their barbecue, that red cup, it calls to them."
And thanks to Toby Keith, it sings, too.