From tailgates to church cookouts to keg parties to backyard birthday celebrations, the red Solo cup is ubiquitous. The cup appears in so many separate spheres of social situations with such ease that it has become the number-one selling disposable receptacle. As she argued against the passing of the Affordable Care Act, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-T.N., said, “Some people like to drive a Ford and not a Ferrari, and some people like to drink out of a red Solo cup and not a crystal stem.” Or more eloquently and simply stated by Toby Keith in his song “Red Solo Cup,” “You, sir, do not have a pair of testicles if you prefer drinking from glass.”
The Solo Cup Company, now a $1.8 billion enterprise known for its single-use tableware products, got its start in 1936 in Chicago’s South Side by introducing a conical paper cup offering a more hygienic and convenient alternative. This water-resistant wax cup immediately gained popularity among industries varying from food service to office water coolers to drive-in movie theaters. After the success of the conical cup, the company introduced the Cozy cup, whose interlocking design revolutionized the takeaway coffee industry. The next great innovation, a small, red cup now known as simply the Solo cup, came 30 years later. It is this simple cup for which the Solo Cup Company is known today.
The red Solo cup is not just for the Ford and Daisy Duke cohort. These cups are so popular among American fraternities that an organization, Trust for Cups, offers fraternities a discount for hitting a 35 percent recycling rate of the single-use cups. Fraternities are not the only frivolous organizations that consistently use the red Solo cup. Slate writes that the White House also has them readily available.
Solo Cup Company commercials feature the cup in G-rated settings, like buffet lines and picnics, but the cup has less innocent associations. Maryland former Attorney General Doug Gansler ’85 came under fire for being pictured with his teenage son and his son’s friends as they held red Solo cups. He argued in his defense that “[t]here could be Kool-Aid in the red cup.” After a brief pause, he admitted, “but there’s probably beer in the red cups.”
Underage drinking is not the only illegal activity the red Solo cup facilitates. In the words of Keith, “The red Solo cup has been filled up on many occasions with many libations.” The cup most recently made headlines when cops found 48 cups filled with marijuana plants in an extensive growing operation. In the unedited version of Toby Keith’s music video for “Red Solo Cup”, a man uses the cup to smoke marijuana and then blows the smoke into the camera.
The red Solo cup not only serves as a vessel for the “refreshments” one may plan to serve at a social gathering, but it can also serve as the main form of entertainment. The bit of melted polystyrene is inextricably linked with drinking games such as beer pong and flip cup. This particular plastic is especially hardy and can withstand multiple rounds of the games. If a naïve college freshman or perturbed parent were to Google image search the intricacies of said games, they would be bombarded with diagrams depicting the bright reds cups arranged in rows (for flip cup) or pyramids (for beer pong).
In fact, the design of the Solo Cup Company’s most recently released cup, Solo Squared, promises to “Add even more flair to parties and gatherings for years to come.” The new cup’s design trades its classic round bottom for a square one. According to Slate writer Seth Stevenson, who speaks from decades of experience partying with the red Solo cup, the new design is far better suited for the classic party games of flip cup and beer pong. But the innovation doesn’t stop there. The short line nearest to the bottom part of the Solo cup measures exactly one ounce of alcohol, which also happens to be just under the average amount of a shot. Seven of these means you don’t go home alone.
To measure the success of the Solo cup as a “party staple” (as Market Weekly describes it), I interviewed international students at Yale College, hoping their global perspective would provide fresh insight into the red Solo cup’s influence on Americans and those hoping to emulate American traditions.
“People will go out of their way to make sure they have Solo cups for American-themed parties,” a student from Germany informs me. He added, “A plaid dress code is usually standard too.”
Another student from London tells me, “The Solo cup is absolute genius. I don’t know why you can’t buy them everywhere [in the United Kingdom] the way you can in America. It makes cleaning up after parties so much easier, and it seems like people are likely to throw them together last minute here.” When I asked her if she would consider using another brand of disposable cup, like a clear plastic one, she stated, “That would just seem cheap and tacky, and the party would seem lame.”
The rise of the Solo cup seems to speak to a cultural significance beyond the cup’s convenience, its preeminent role in popular drinking games or its prevalence in drinking culture. That such a utilitarian and basic plastic product has come to represent the casual American get-together says much about the ease with which Americans easily navigate different social circles. Across American society, there’s no formula for a night out. It could be anything from a kickback watching a football game or a Scandal premiere to a drunken potluck or an afternoon cookout.
If you wish to pay tribute to this simple product that dominates its respective market and has carved a niche forever in the hearts of American consumers, simply raise your red plastic receptacle, repeat the following chorus from Toby Keith’s anthem, and then execute its instructions immediately:
“Red Solo cup, I fill you up
Let’s have a party, let’s have a party
I love you red Solo cup, I lift you up
Proceed to party, proceed to party.”