Suck on this: The drinking straw was invented in Washington

On. Oct. 3, 1951, I arrived in Washington to join [National Institutes of Health], then a population of barely 600 employees at Bethesda. In my pocket I had the home address of Isadore Baron, engineer of the Stone Straw Co. A friend had provided the address and he was the only person known to me in Washington. I recall a few details of our dinner together, namely that Mr. Stone had been a Union officer during the Civil War and had built a factory in Northeast. I left the dinner with a gift: a cardboard box of cellulose straws, each striped along its length with thin colored bands. Perhaps you may find a story here.

L.D. Saslaw, Washington

If you go to 900 Franklin St. NE, you will find the Stone Straw Building. The seemingly incongruous name sounds like something from the “Three Little Pigs.” Though the building is made of bricks (not stone), it was made by straws: millions upon millions of them, all descendants of the modest paper tube invented in Washington by Marvin C. Stone.

Stone (1842-1899) did indeed fight in the Civil War. He was wounded at the Battle of Lookout Mountain while serving with the 7th Ohio Regiment. Stone settled in Washington after the war and found work as a journalist, serving as a correspondent for the Cleveland Leader and New Orleans Picayune.

Like his father, whose inventions included a cheese press and a washing machine, Marvin was a tinkerer. The origin story of his most famous creation goes like this: Stone was tired of using lengths of hollow ryegrass to suck down his mint juleps. The dried reeds then in common use had serious shortcomings. They often imparted a musty, unpleasant taste to beverages and sometimes cracked.

Stone’s idea was to wrap a spiral of paper around a pencil, hold it fast with paraffin wax and then remove the pencil. He took a supply of straws to his favorite tavern, a bar on Ninth Street NW called Aman’s, and asked the owner to keep them for his mint juleps. When others clamored for artificial straws, Stone knew he had a winner.

The story sounds a little too pat for Answer Man, who suspects that Stone wanted another use for a product he had already made: the paper cigarette holder. He was churning out 1 million holders a day for the Duke tobacco company of Durham, N.C. Whatever the gen­esis, in 1888, Stone was granted Patent No. 375,962 for the artificial drinking straw.

In the 1890s, Stone Straw was said to be the largest private concern in the city, employing about 400 “girls” in a plant on Ninth Street NW, near Pennsylvania Avenue. The Evening Star wrote in 1891: “They receive good wages, are considered more than menials, and their personal comfort and moral welfare are looked after.”

Stone seems to have been a benevolent boss. One large room in his factory was equipped with a piano, for singing and dancing at lunch. There was a library from which employees could borrow books.

Stone also built tenement houses in Washington’s Swampoodle neighborhood, north of today’s Union Station. They were designed so that African Americans “might enjoy good home privileges at a low rent.”

The Franklin Street NE plant was built in 1931. Other Stone plants eventually hummed in Beltsville and College Park, Md.

The company expanded beyond cigarette holders and drinking straws. It made lollipop sticks, paper containers for chemicals, paper caps for radio tubes and blasting caps.

Stone Straw made a cardboard casing for glass iodine vials carried by soldiers in World War II. When a wounded GI broke the glass, iodine seeped through openings in the casing.

It also continued to make straws. In 1956, the factory on Franklin Street was churning out 8 million straws a day. That seems impossible.

Various pieces of the Stone empire were carved off over the decades. The name lives on with Stone Straw in Branford, Ontario.

“We bought the brand,” said Pierre Doig, general manager. “We’ve owned it for the last 17 years.”

The Canadian company makes three types of straws: plastic, biodegradable and naturally compostable.

The plastic straw has become a symbol of the way humans trash the environment in our search for convenience, even if experts point out that plastic straws aren’t the real problem. (Abandoned fishing nets account for most of the plastic junk in our oceans.)

Of course, what we really should do is go back to ryegrass.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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