How the Red Solo Cup Became an American Party Staple

The stories behind the stuff we buy.
Oct. 10 2011 1:58 PM

The Solo Cup

How the disposable drinking vessel became an American party staple.

modern solo cup
The square-bottomed modern Solo cup

Courtesy Solo Cup Co.

A short while back I was walking through a grocery store when I noticed a radical development. The classic red Solo cup—a keg party staple for nearly four decades—had switched from a round to a square bottom.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

This seemed unnatural. Could it be true that college students across the nation were experiencing a wholly different world from the one I'd known? So ubiquitous were these plastic cups in my undergrad days, tweaking them in even the slightest fashion would have altered my entire visual landscape. It'd be akin to a Manhattanite awaking one morning to find New York City’s yellow cabs had all been painted fuchsia.

Should you doubt the cup’s cultural significance, I would point you toward a brand new Toby Keith song titled “Red Solo Cup.” The song opens with these lyrics: “Red Solo cup is the best receptacle for barbecues, tailgates, fairs, and festivals. And you, sir, do not have a pair of testicles if you prefer drinking from a glass.” The tune’s admirably forthright chorus: “I love you, red Solo cup. I fill you up. Proceed to party. Proceed to party.”

So quintessentially American is the red Solo cup, it is available for sale through a specialty website—Party Cups U.K.—targeting British revelers who wish to re-create the ambience of a land-grant university frat house. The site sells nothing but red Solo cups, and every order includes printed rulebooks for Beer Pong and Flip Cup, which the home page informs us are “the Americans’ drinking games of choice.” With a veritable national icon on its hands, why would Solo risk changing the design?

Advertisement

The company itself boasts a rich history. This fall marks the 75th birthday of the Illinois-based Solo Cup Co., which first made its mark in the 1940s with a small paper cone that often perched on the sides of office water coolers. In the 1950s, Solo made wax-lined cups that proved ideal for the takeaway fountain sodas served at drive-in movie theaters. Nowadays, the company manufactures all manner of single-use dinnerware, cutlery, and beverage receptacles. Its products are found in supermarkets, convenience stores, coffee shops, and fast food restaurants across the globe (as well as in the White House Situation Room). But it remains best known for the red party cup, which launched in the 1970s.

The American Pie spinoff, Beta House
The American Pie spinoff, Beta House, would not be complete without red party cups

Courtesy Universal Pictures.

How did the red cup become synonymous with good times, keg draughts, and sticky-floored basements? “The history is a little sketchy,” says Kim Healy, VP of consumer business for Solo. “We know we were one of the first to introduce a party cup.”

So perhaps first-mover advantage played a role, with followers clamoring to emulate Solo’s technological breakthrough? For surely the quality of the design played a part. From the beginning, this has been the Sherman tank of disposable mealware. Made of thick, molded polystyrene, the Solo party cup could be squeezed in meaty frat-guy paws, dropped to the ground by tipsy highschool cheerleaders, and mercilessly battered by Flip Cup contestants—all while maintaining shape and functionality. It was stiffer and more resilient than competitor party cups like Dixie’s.

No doubt the cup’s opacity was a selling point for underage college and high-school drinkers who would prefer not to reveal exactly what they’re sipping. But why red? Healy says the red-colored cups make up 60 percent of Solo party cup sales, with blue cups a distant second. “I’ve been here 12 years, and I’ve tested this over and over. Consumers prefer red, and it’s not very close. I think for one thing it’s a neutral color that’s appealing to both men and women. It’s also just become a standard.” Perhaps it is a psychologically ingrained preference, as well. Some color theory holds that red signifies concepts like energy, passion, and emotional intensity, while blue is linked with tranquility and depth. I know which set of associations I’d rather trigger at my drunken beer blast.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

The Secret Service’s Big Problems Were Reported Last Year. Nobody Cared.

Tattoo Parlors Have Become a Great Investment

Natasha Lyonne Is Coming to the Live Culture Gabfest. Are You?

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 2 2014 11:01 AM It Wasn’t a Secret A 2013 inspector general report detailed all of the Secret Service’s problems. Nobody cared.
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 2 2014 11:16 AM Some McDonald's Monopoly Properties Matter More
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 2 2014 11:07 AM Mapping 1890 Manhattan's Crazy-Quilt of Immigrant Neighborhoods
  Double X
Doublex
Oct. 2 2014 11:34 AM Alabama’s Insane New Abortion Law Putting teenage girls on trial may finally be too much for the Supreme Court.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 2 2014 11:35 AM Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar’s New Video Is Somehow Both Creepy and Joyful
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 2 2014 11:41 AM Dropbox Recruiting Video Features Puppets and Data Privacy
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 2 2014 9:49 AM In Medicine We Trust Should we worry that so many of the doctors treating Ebola in Africa are missionaries?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?