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Coffee Cup Lid Collection Traces the History of Disposable Design

By Wesley Fenlon

Disposable lids may be wasteful, but like any technology, a great deal of engineering went into their creation.

In the 1970s, there may have been only nine patents for drink lids designed in the United States--nine unique patents for lids that, ideally, kept to-go beverages from sloshing out of their cups and ruining clothes and morning commutes. The next decade, 26 patents existed for the same purpose. Lids were a big deal. Add in another three decades of growing urban centers, lengthening commutes, and busier lives, and it should be no surprise that we take our disposable plastic lids more seriously than ever.

Architect Louise Harpman collects coffee cup lids and currently owns more than 550 varieties of disposable spill-stoppers, which proves that the 90s and 2000s saw huge growth in lid designs and patents. The Smithsonian's Design blog has a great piece up tracing the history of coffee lids through decades of cultural change.

The lids represent an interesting intersection of technical and cultural evolution. As the United States increasingly focused on to-go foods and drinks (and telephone calls and shopping and everything else), we became more adept at engineering cheap plastics and producing materials and disposable volumes.

Harpman began collecting the lids 30 years ago after noticing students peeling back part of a lid to create a small triangular section to sip through. Decades later, that's still a common coffee lid design. It wasn't until sometime in the 1980s that lid design began to focus on covering up drinking holes after they'd been created, which was the birth of the modern coffee cup lid.

It's amazing how many different designs have been tried over the years, and you can probably start your own modern collection simply by hopping between Starbucks, McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, and 7-Eleven. Then again, maybe not. As the Smithsonian points out, the Solo Traveler is an awfully familiar design that's still used today...and it debuted in 1986.