HOW DIXIE CUPS BECAME THE BREAKOUT START-UP OF THE 1918 PANDEMIC

In 1907, Boston attorney Lawrence Luellen created a cup. It wasn’t made of glass or metal—the norm at the time. Instead, it was made of paper so it could be thrown away after use. While not earth-shattering in our current context, in the early 1900s there were no disposable paper tissues or paper towels. A cup made of paper was a novel idea, one with a noble goal: Luellen hoped his paper cups could help stop the spread of disease. What makes this century-old startup story especially poignant today is that Dixie cups, as they came to be known, achieved only moderate growth for 10 years until the Spanish flu of 1918 made disposable cups a necessity and helped the Dixie cup become a household name. In 2012, Smithsonian Magazine even called the Dixie cup a “life-saving technology” that helped stop the spread of disease. With the success of Dixie cups came other disposable products, such as Kleenex in 1924 and paper towels in 1931. This also led to new and environmentally harmful materials such as polystyrene finding their way into consumer products. As the history of Dixie cups shows, a product that solves one problem can create new ones. Some people are already complaining of “Zoom fatigue,” for example. Products that become popular during the current pandemic will have their own first- and second-order effects. Some of the problematic ones will present opportunities for intrepid new startups.  Read More >>

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