12:54pm

Sat November 5, 2011
Art & Design

The Red Solo Cup: Every Party's Most Popular Guest

Originally published on Sat November 5, 2011 4:44 pm

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.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

Tonight, like most Saturday nights in college towns across the country, students are getting ready to party, and the one thing most of those parties will have in common besides a few chilled kegs is a large stack of cups - red plastic cups to be precise. And just how did these big, bright liquid holders get so popular that folks are now singing about them, producer Lauren Silverman volunteered to do some research.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: That red cup is part of a legacy that stretches back 75 years. It's made by a company called Solo from the folks that brought us those little paper cone cups at the water cooler and the wax-lined cups at fast-food joints. But nothing has had the impact of the red Solo cup.

SETH STEVENSON: My first experience with the Solo cup, I am guessing, it was in high school at some kind of keg party we should not have been throwing.

SILVERMAN: That's Seth Stevenson. He's a reporter for Slate Magazine, an occasional beer drinker and a major fan of country-singer Toby Keith's new song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED SOLO CUP")

TOBY KEITH: (Singing) Now, red Solo cup is the best receptacle for barbecues, tailgates, fairs and festivals. And you...

SILVERMAN: OK, wait a second. I need to make it clear that Solo did not pay Toby Keith to write this song. Even scarier, he's just one of many who worship at the shrine of the red cup.

KIM HEALY: Actually, I've seen people use it as a to-go cup. 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.

SILVERMAN: That's Kim Healy. She's vice president of Solo's consumer business department.

HEALY: People make flowers out of these cups. We had someone that made a full lobster costume out of our cups - head to toe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED SOLO CUP")

KEITH: (Singing) I love you red Solo cup. I lift you up. Proceed to party.

HEALY: When I joined the company and saw how iconic the red party cup was, my first inclination was, well then, we shouldn't change anything about it.

SILVERMAN: But that's exactly what Kim Healy did in 2009. And it caught Seth Stevenson's eye.

STEVENSON: One day, I was walking through the grocery store and I noticed a subtle change. And the red Solo cup had square sides and a square bottom instead of the round one I was used to. And 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. Looks like a tank.

SILVERMAN: The shape changed, Kim Healy says, because people wanted something sturdier, that wouldn't slip out of your hand when beer sloshes over the side.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED SOLO CUP")

KEITH: (Singing) You're more than just plastic. You're more than amazing. You're more than fantastic.

SILVERMAN: Now, plenty of other companies make disposable plastic cups, and a lot of them are cheaper than Solo's. But this is the one that's become king of the keggers.

STEVENSON: It's just become synonymous with partying. And when people go to the store to stock up for their barbecue, that red Solo cup, it calls to them.

SILVERMAN: And now, it sings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RED SOLO CUP")

KEITH: (Singing) Red Solo cup, I fill you up. Let's have a party, let's have a party.

SILVERMAN: Lauren Silverman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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