Few objects are as quintessentially “college” as the iconic red Solo cup.
For decades, they have been essential guests at college parties, where they often double as liquid containers as well as drinking game instruments. Despite the cup’s regular presence in Facebook albums of collegiate debauchery, it is rarely the subject of deeper consideration.
A recent article from Slate does just that, however, by pondering the fascinating question of how the cup became a hallmark of the American party scene. As author Seth Stevenson concluded, the cup’s success as a cultural icon can probably be chalked up to a combination of different factors. For one, the company created their product early on, introducing the signature red cups in the 1970s. Solo cups are also sturdier than competitor cups, and the red color psychologically triggers intense emotions that suit the party atmosphere, he added.
Beyond the signature red cups, the Solo Cup Company produces a variety of other products, complete with a long and interesting history. Founded in 1936 as the Paper Container Manufacturing Company, the company’s focus on inexpensive, disposal goods coincided nicely with the needs of cash-strapped Depression-era consumers.
According to its website, Solo sees itself as “a $1.6 billion international company that simplifies life with single-use products, enriching everyday meals and special occasions.”
In other words, more than just flip cup and beer pong.
Solo goes to great lengths to ensure the structural integrity of their cups, said sophomore Kelsey Goon, who worked at the Solo Cup Company over the summer.
The classic round cups featured horizontal ridges that went around the cup, she added. A common myth said that the lines were made for measuring drinks. Goon, however, said that the lines were actually designed for structural integrity: the angle of the cup changes slightly at the ridges, which decreases flimsiness.
As observant drinkers may have noticed, the classic cup was recently redesigned. In 2009, the cup’s base changed from circular to square, and four indented grips were added to the bottom. Goon explained that the change was largely to differentiate the company’s cups from imitation ones, although it also had practical benefits.
“When other companies started making similar party cups, they wanted to set their products apart with the square bottom,” said Goon. “Also, you can use less material and still have it be structurally sound.”
At Duke, plastic cups have served not only as a partying icon, but also as a safety regulation. According to an August 2009 article in The Chronicle, Tailgate rules were revised in 2009 so that beer could only be dispensed in plastic cups, since the aluminum cans were prone to cut people's feet.
Ironically, Solo’s prominence in the partying scene does not seem to be the result of any intentional marketing by the company. As Goon explained, the cups are not intended just for use at parties.
“If you look at any of their commercials, they don’t advertise for college parties," she said. "Instead, they advertise for events like picnics.”
Within the Duke bubble, though, it’s safe to say that Solo cups are rarely associated with checkered blankets and packed lunches.