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There’s More to That Red Plastic Cup Than You Thought

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Raise your cup. | Creative Commons. Photo by John W. Iwanski. Click on image for license and link.

Who here has not enjoyed a cold, refreshing drink from a red plastic cup? Alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages alike find themselves comfortably enclosed within the confines of the bright red vessel that has become a ubiquitous American staple at barbecues, picnics, parties, in dugouts and at minor league games, in food cars and at lunch trucks, and even as a last resort at dive bars—and, of course, college students’ dorms and apartments, where it also functions as a key component in Flip Cup and Beer Pong.

Your drinking vessel may indeed impact your imbibing experience, but the red plastic cup serves as the great equalizer in drinking activities—from the top shelf to the supermarket shelf, the red plastic cup captures and contributes to the spirit of the occasion. It helps make bitter alcohol a more pleasant experience. After all, how can it be distasteful if it’s delivered from the study depths of the cheerily colored vessel? Packaging matters! Drinking practices carry their own distinct rules and expectations relating to the age, gender, and status. The red plastic cup crosses many of these boundaries to figure prominently in American drinking customs.

The most famous of all the red plastic cups is produced by Solo, the long time producer of single use products that are sold almost everywhere. Founded in 1936, the “paper container” manufacturer produced a paper cone cup that typically went with water coolers. A wax-lined cup used in the 1950s for fountain sodas and takeaway drinks might be viewed as precursor to the signature red cup in terms of sturdiness and widespread adoption. The red plastic cup first appeared in the 1970s and worked its way into popular culture seamlessly—even spawning a silly, but fun ode by country singer Toby Keith (which we will get to soon enough). Solo’s simple design for the red cup has been easy for competitors to copy, but in recent years the company has implemented small but noticeable changes—such as a square bottom, indented grips, and Solo embossed on the side—to add further distinction for customers looking for the brand. Consumers can rest assured that the design changes have not impacted the functionality of the red cup—so flip away, or ahem, drink out of it without fear it will slip out of your hands.

Social drinking is a ritualized act. There are certain social codes of consumption that help define the experience by setting expectations and establishing appropriate or acceptable behaviors. Anthropologist William Donner documented social rules surrounding toddy drinking in Sikaiana, a small Polynesian atoll in the Solomon Islands. (Toddy seems a generic name for drinks made from fermented palm. In this case, toddy is made by fermenting the sap of coconut shoots.) Donner found that drinking reorganized the community, allowing boundaries to be renegotiated. Part of this stems from the ways in which drink is shared. In Sikaiana, toddy distribution follows a rather specific format which helps establish the community as a place of equality:

“Participants form a circle. They distributor pours a portion and passes it to one person in the group. This person drinks the cup until its is empty, usually in one drink. Then he returns the cup to the distributor and another serving of the exact same size is poured for the next person. This continues until everyone in the group has had a turn and then the distributor starts another round. If a person arrives late, the distributor may offer him a larger portion so that the latecomer can catch up with the people who are already drinking. In larger groups, several cups are passed out simultaneously, but always in a circular fashion so that everyone is given an equal amount to drink” (1994: 250).

Among the Xhosa, beer is also consumed in accordance with a social code. At a beer-drink (a public drinking event), the beer is kept in either cast-iron pots or plastic or wooden containers, and served in tin beakers (billy cans) of various sizes:

“When beer is allocated, the host section’s mast of ceremonies points out the size of the beaker because the receivers have certain expectations in this regard based on the current state of their beer-exchange relationship with the givers. So a can of beer given to a neighboring group may be announced with carefully chosen words, such as ‘This is your beaker, it is a full iqhwina [seven liters], as it should be when there is a full cask for men’ ” (McAllister 2003: 197).

The drinking vessel is central to this experience. It’s an equalizing factor and a measure of consistency for attendees. It also serves as the entry-point for the temporary social community that has gathered. Drinking from the cup confirms attendance at the event and authorizes participation in subsequent event activities—conversation, singing, dancing, joking and laughing, even confrontations are mediated by drink and cup possession.

Our red plastic cups work similarly. Cup in hand, we mingle. Liberated by the social permission granted by the red plastic cup, we catch up with old friends and make new ones. It becomes a factor that connects attendees at the event—we all have a red plastic cup, so we all belong. And we assert that these cups are ours by writing our name on them, which further making them a handy tool for socialization. This sort of possession also minimizes the burden on our hosts to have a bounty of cups available for guests. (In college and in grad school, we wrote our names on cups because we paid for them at parties and it was in our interest to keep track of our cups.) The practice also functions to manage our alcohol consumption. We get a cup at an event and we’re free to fill it with any of the available options. It holds roughly the same amount for everyone—or least it gives the illusion of equality with regard to the ratios in mixed drinks. Among the Sikaiana, the distributor/host determines how much is poured into the cup for each round and how long to wait between rounds:

“Serving large portions and not waiting between rounds will cause the participants to become drunk rapidly. On the other hand, after such a happy state of inebriation has been reached, the distributor may decide to slow the pace of drinking in order to control the level of intoxication and preserve the supply of toddy (Donner 1994: 250).

While we may not necessarily be served in the same way with our red plastic cups (that might be a downer of a party to attend), our named cups provide a way to monitor access to drinks. If you lose your cup, you might be out of luck. It can also be a signal that the cup-less should perhaps be cut-off, especially when it’s clear that the de-cupped has passed beyond happy, joyful drinking to disruptive behavior.

The red plastic cup may have a bit of a party-animal reputation. It’s hardly likely you’ll be drinking fine wine or quality spirits from a red plastic cup. Or that you’ll find a red plastic cup at a banquet or gala. The red plastic cup is a champion of the everyday and and the unpretentious. It suggests a relaxed, convival atmosphere and invites everyone to join the party. It won’t reveal the contents contained so whether it’s alcohol, tea, fruit juice, or water, everyone belongs and everyone can participate.

So whatever your preference, raise your red plastic cup.

Bunimovitz, S., & Greenberg, R. (2004). Revealed in Their Cups: Syrian Drinking Customs in Intermediate Bronze Age Canaan Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (334) DOI: 10.2307/4150104

Donner, W. (1994). Alcohol, Community, and Modernity: The Social Organization of Toddy Drinking in a Polynesian Society Ethnology, 33 (3) DOI: 10.2307/3774009

Magennis, H. (1985). The Cup as Symbol and Metaphor in Old English Literature Speculum, 60 (3) DOI: 10.2307/2848173

McAllister, P. (2003). Culture, Practice, and the Semantics of Xhosa Beer-Drinking Ethnology, 42 (3) DOI: 10.2307/3773800

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. MonicaM 8:49 pm 01/30/2012

    Great piece. I can’t believe the timeliness of it though! Just last night involved in lengthy discussion about drinking practices and protocols in preparation for an event this weekend (the “Science of a Cocktail Party” – first fundraising event for Illinois Science Council in Chicago). At one point there was much discussion about the appropriateness of using red plastic cups at a cocktail party!
    Would you be okay with my posting your piece at our event on Saturday?

    BTW – video is hilarious!

    Link to this
  2. 2. killgrove 10:10 pm 01/30/2012

    I feel like the ancient equivalent to the red Solo cup is the rhyton – But I’m also reminded of the awesome Greek “mastos” cup – shaped like a woman’s breast, it was curved (and be-nippled) at the bottom and therefore couldn’t be put down ( So its contents had to be consumed, whether or not a person wanted to finish the drink. Talk about ancient peer pressure!

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  3. 3. Hasufin 1:49 pm 01/31/2012

    by contrast in chado, the chawan (tea bowl) is important for each individual. The First Guest is _always_ given the very best, most historically significant, chawan available. Other guests are given chawan roughly based upon their social status. (However, in a large chakai (“informal” tea ceremony) lower-ranked chawan may be washed and given out to other guests because few people have more than a dozen or so chawan).
    The dynamics are so terribly different – each chawan is handmade and precious, an objete d’arte in its own right. Their use reinforces social hierarchy.
    The red solo cup, on the other hand, is mass-produced and disposable, and used to reinforce a flat hierarchy, even acting as an equalizer.

    I wonder how drinking vessels map to Hofstedte’s matrix?

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  4. 4. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 10:25 am 02/2/2012

    killgrove, the mastos cup sounds like it might have a place in fraternal initiations! Thanks for passing along info on the rhyton.

    Hasufin, in prepping this post I read something about a Lord’s court where he had an elaborate chalice and the other guests had vessels suitable to their stature. To a certain degree, the mass production of goods has driven us toward this sense of equality, but I think we’re also fixed on a sense of continuity or sameness (matching)—even at fancier occasions where there would be no red plastic cups, the drinking vessels are likely similar. Quite frankly, as long as my cup is full, I’m not going to complain about the vessel.

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  5. 5. Hasufin 3:32 pm 02/28/2012

    With the red cup, the focus is on the beverage, to the point that the cup itself is invisible. And while the tea at a chakai is important, it’s not actually the focus of the ceremony, and the vessels are at least as important as the quality of the tea.

    I have on occasion been offered the position of First Guest. (Of late, our chado association has been able to attract luminaries, but this has not always been the case). I’ve always declined – I’ve never felt that I could meet the requirements of acting as the First Guest. Who would find it necessary to show humility before a red solo cup?

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  6. 6. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 2:13 pm 03/1/2012

    Humility? The red plastic cup requires no such formal recognition of status, and in fact would scoff at an hint of status. “We’re all friends,” says the red plastic cup. “And you are no better than I me. Your fancy drink is just a drink without the trappings of finery that it can be served in.” :)

    This does make we think of wedding toasts, and the engraved flutes that the bride and groom sometimes use. Would a RPC fit in there?

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