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The Evolution of the Coffee Cup Sleeve

By Wesley Fenlon

Until 20 years ago, getting a cup of coffee to go probably meant burning your hand. Enter the coffee sleeve.

The coffee sleeve is one of those so-obvious-in-hindsight inventions that it's hard to imagine a time before the hand protector existed. But the coffee sleeve as we know it only came into popularity about 20 years ago. In those two decades it's become such a mainstay of bleary-eyed morning coffee culture that the coffee cup sleeve has earned a place at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Photo credit: Flickr user epw via Creative Commons

As Smithsonian's Design Decoded writes, the coffee sleeve came into popularity thanks to the invention of the Java Jacket in 1991. A realtor named Jay Sorensen started pounding away on the idea after burning his fingers on a cup of coffee picked up from a drive-through window (and, as a result, dropping the whole cup in his lap). His first idea was to make the coffee cup itself better-insulated, but that wasn't going to work as a replacement for easily stackable and cheap paper and styrofoam cups. Besides, not all coffee drinks were hot enough to justify a more expensive cup.

Image credit: US Patent Office

Eventually Sorensen's idea evolved into the Java Jacket, which may have succeeded as much on the strength of its name as its idea. He used embossed chipboard to provide some insulation and sold his first box of jackets to a local Oregon coffee chain. After showing up at Seattle coffee convention with the Java Jacket, the coffee protector was destined for fame.

Today Sorensen sells a billion Java Jackets a year. And that number doesn't include the coffee protectors sold with every cup of Starbucks coffee--Starbucks patented its own protector, using corrugated paper on the inside of its sleeve.

There's no doubt the coffee sleeve deserves a spot among MoMA's "Humble Masterpieces" collection, but Design Decoded points out that it was far from the first cup sleeve. The blog offers a look at some of the Java Jacket's predecessors, dating all the way back to 1925.

And if you're interested in the history of coffee cup lids, there are people obsessed about those, too.