A Flexible Mind
A two-year-old girl’s frustration with a milk shake inspired Joseph B. Friedman to create one of the most widely used objects of our time, the flexible straw. It happened at his brother’s San Francisco soda fountain, the Varsity Sweet Shop, in 1936. As he watched his daughter Judith try to sip from a glass on the counter, Friedman understood her problem: She had bent the straw down so she could reach it more easily, but the bend impeded the flow of the shake. Friedman quickly hit on a solution, based on the principle of the coiled spring, which retains its diameter when flexed.
At home he inserted a screw into a paper straw and wrapped dental floss around the grooves. When he removed the floss and screw, the corrugations gave the straw a flexible “elbow” without blocking the passage. Friedman filed for a patent on his “drinking tube” in November 1936, and it was awarded the following September. Instead of using the dental-floss method, the patent suggested rolling the straw between two grooved cylinders, one inside and one outside.
This was not Friedman’s first invention. In 1915, when he was 14, the Cleveland native had come up with the “pencilite,” for writing in the dark. He offered to license his invention to a manufacturer if it would pay the patent-application fees. The company did not accept his offer but, evidently unaware of his age, expressed an interest in his inventive abilities. He received his first patent in 1922, for an ink gauge for fountain pens. In the 1930s he sold this invention to the Sheaffer Pen Company. By then he had moved to California and started a family. To support his wife and four children, he worked briefly as an optometrist but primarily as a real estate broker.
Friedman was continually developing new product ideas: an automatic shutoff for a gas range, a portable movie screen, a reflective license plate. In the 1920s he experimented with three-dimensional motion pictures. Though he had no formal engineering training, he obtained nine patents, applied for two more, and documented dozens of other inventions.
The flexible paper straw was by far his most successful. He promoted it to potential manufacturers as the Flex-Straw but was unable to reach a satisfactory agreement. In 1937 an agent sent Friedman a telegram about his meeting with a possible manufacturing partner, who (the agent wrote) cited IMPOSSIBILITY CONSTRUCTING WORKABLE MACHINE. The manufacturer had nonetheless proposed a deal in which his company would share in the profits but would not put up any money, and Friedman’s representative had TOLD HIM IN EFFECT TO JUMP IN THE LAKE. So Friedman decided to produce the straw himself, and in 1939, with backing from two of his brothers-in-law, he formed the Flexible Straw Corporation.
Along the way he refined the design, substituting a spiral groove (as in the original screw-and-floss prototype) for the parallel ridges in his 1937 patent and adding a microcrystalline wax coating on the flexible area. These changes, on which he applied for a patent in 1948 (it was granted in 1951), helped the straw stay rigid when bent, instead of flopping over.
While he worked on improving and marketing his straw, Friedman continued to sell real estate and struggled with wartime and postwar scarcities of materials and machine parts. “You use substitutes, alternates, and ingenuity. Lots of the latter,” he wrote in a 1947 letter. That year, with most of the technical problems solved, he was ready for production. Because he was not interested in the daily management of a company, he turned for help to his older sister, Betty.
Unusual for her time, Betty Friedman was a career woman. She had helped Bert and Milton Klein develop the Tarbonis Company, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, in Cleveland. The Kleins recognized the potential of the flexible straw and provided support when the Friedmans’ fledgling enterprise was re-established as the Flex-Straw Company in 1950. Using the name B. Friedman, Betty set up a nationwide marketing and distribution system. In 1954 she moved to California.
Flex-Straws were first sold to hospitals, where their advantages over glass drinking tubes were especially important: They were sanitary, disposable, shatterproof, heat-resistant, and flexible (so they could be used easily by immobile patients). In the late 1950s Flex-Straws began to be marketed for home use in the United States and abroad. The Flex-Straw Company was dissolved in 1969 after selling its patents and licenses to the Maryland Cup Corporation. Around that time sturdier plastic straws were starting to be introduced, including the expandable thermoplastic flexible straw, with corrugations that make a noise when the straw is bent. Today paper straws are hard to find.
Joseph Friedman died in 1982. In 2001 his children—Judith Rosen, Linda Reiss, Pamela Leeds, and Robert Friedman—donated his papers to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. There the Modern Inventors Documentation Program preserves the story of a man whose inventions made life easier in scores of ways, big and small.