To-Go Mugs

Coffee on the go was born in the American culture, mainly because everyone started their morning by drinking their coffee while going to work. The American culture has developed into one where you can drink your coffee customized, in large quantities, and almost on the go. This culture stands in contrast to the espresso tradition of old-fashioned cafes on the streets of France and Italy, or the dutiful routine of baristas in Osaka and Tokyo, or even the coffee farmers of Costa Rica brewing in their chorredores before a long day in the fields.

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The coffee culture in America differs significantly from that of other countries, where the hand-pulled espresso lands in ceramic cups, which are then sipped and savored at a cafe table. Americans see the coffee cup as a symbol of the modern professional – the person’s marker on the go.

The movement of the to-go mug began with the temperance movement when teetotalers traveled with a water wagon trying to encourage the public to give up on beer. These wagons had a communal dipping cup attached from which people could sip. In 1907, Lawrence Luellen, a Massachusetts lawyer, invented the first disposable cup to stop the spread of germs from these communal cups. His invention was called initially the Health Kup, and it would develop into what we know today as the dixie cup.

The use of the disposable paper cup continued into the 1950s when the office vending machines gave away a quick coffee in a paper cup for tired office workers. In 1952, the Pan American Coffee Bureau gave a name to this new movement, as “coffee break”. This made the practice official when workers needed a few minutes of rest and a caffeine jolt to make it through the day. The bureau also introduced the slogan “Stay Alert, Stay Alive – Make It Coffee When You Drive” in this “coffee break” campaign”. 

These campaigns have traveled decidedly out of the home of an American into the workplace. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, America was suburbanized, where people were taking their coffee on the road, literally. The commuter culture cemented the need for coffee while in motion. However, there wasn’t a reliable way to transport coffee.

To-go cups were topped with peel-black lids, which made them challenging on the go because people could slosh their hot coffee onto themselves. However, a solution came in 1964 where 7-Eleven on Long Island became the first chain store to offer to-go travel cups. More convenience stores appeared across the country, and there was a campaign where people would get a loyalty discount called “coffee club”, which consisted of behemoth to-go cups carried around. In 1989, a New York Times article referred to this specific travel mug as a “plastic slosh proof wonder”.

In 1980 two significant developments changed how global coffee drinkers would interact with the brew forever. These two significant developments were when Starbucks has risen, and the invention of the Solo Traveller lid. Under the leadership of Howard Shults, Starbucks proliferated across America in the 1980s and 1990s. As part of the expansion, Starbucks had to make their offer standard for their to-go cups and lids. The company chose the Solo Traveller lid, explicitly designed for drinking on the go.

According to the 1984 patent, the Solo Traveller lid was the perfect embodiment for coffee drinking because the top wall of the cover has a recess formed in it adjacent to the drinking opening to accommodate the user when coffee is sipped. There would be no more tearing, pinching, or peeling plastic lids to drink coffee while driving or walking. The Traveller lid was ergonomically designed to be sipped from while moving.

The world’s first barista standard reusable cup is KeepCup, and Abigail Forsyth is its co-founder. She started her career in cafes in the 1990s. She once mentioned that she remembers the introduction of traveler-style lids to the industry. However, when Starbucks decided to provide that lid with their to-go coffee, the entire culture has changed.

The to-go cup has become a symbol of status, a marker of the successful young professional in touch with trends and well-caffeinated. Abigail also added that Starbucks was some sort of aspirational behaviour because Starbucks made the direction look like a sophisticated thing to do. She said that if you wanted to make someone appear like a busy professional, you put a laptop in one hand and a disposable cup in the other hand. For thirty years, the disposable coffee cup was used to broadcast your values, status, and taste to the world. Everyone adopted their own branded disposable cups, from Starbucks to tiny independent corner shops. The to-go cup became a standard for cafe-goers, where they receive a disposable paper cup and traveler lid, even if they had only latter at a table inside a local cafe.

Abigail and her brother Jamie founded KeepCup while working in cafes in Melbourne, Australia. They did this because they witnessed the huge impact the disposable culture had on the environment. Abigail said that she saw how many disposable cups went through as a business and was disgusted because people would drink for five minutes and then throw it in the bin. So Abigail thought that there much be a better way.

In 2009, she designed the first KeepCup to offer a solution that would work for both the consumer and barista that is making the coffee. Abigail added that she wanted to make it look like a disposable cup, so it wasn’t a massive step in terms of design. The cup had to be lightweight, stackable and have the same internal volumes as to the disposable cups. Because she and her brother were working behind the coffee machine, they knew that the cup needed a press-on lid to have the speed of service behind it.

Today, reusable cups are just one solution that the cafe industry is employing to combat the overwhelming waste of disposable coffee cups. The to-go coffee culture was developed to meet American commuters’ increasingly fast-paced, mobile, and wandering routines. However, it turned into an issue of convenience over sustainability. Many coffee lovers are working to reverse that type of thinking, to preserve the planet and the farms that grow the beloved coffee beans.

Once again, the to-go culture is changing drastically, and people are learning to slow down after decades of speeding up. The ritual of a coffee break is gaining popularity once again, rebranded from the post-war years as a welcome break from the onslaught of our digital culture. Coffee lovers want the brews to taste better from a porcelain mug than a paper cup. People also want to express themselves by choosing their reusable mug rather than the logo of their favorite chain.