How a Short Child and a Tall Milk Shake Led to the Invention of the Bendy Straw

Patent #2,094,268: Joseph B. Friedman's “Personalized Drinking Tube”—now flexible!

bendy straw
Friedman's original sketches for his "personal drinking tube."Joseph B. Friedman Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

One day, while sitting at the counter of San Francisco's Varsity Sweet Shoppe, little Judith Friedman struggled to sip her milk shake. Its tall paper straw was an inflexible and insurmountable barrier for a girl of diminutive size. Pulling the straw toward her might tip the glass; bending it would block the shake's flow. Her father, Joseph B. Friedman, took notice.

It was the 1930s, and while a little lift for Judith may have sufficed, Joseph—who already had a few patents under his belt—was not one for a quick fix. Back home, he grabbed one standard paper straw (patented by Marvin Stone in 1888), a length of dental floss, and a metal screw.

In order for the straw to bend without compromising its function, a hinge that allowed the tube to remain open had to be created. Recalling the fluid mechanics of a helical spring (imagine a Slinky shape), Friedman inserted the screw into the paper straw and, using the dental floss, molded the straw around the screw's teeth. The result was a continuous inch or so of accordion folds, through which all future milk shakes would be entirely accessible. Thus the “bendy straw” was born.

Technically patented as a “drinking tube,” the product of Friedman's Flex-Straw Corporation found its start in hospitals with the horizontally infirm, before successfully forging a path into homes across the country. And today, nearly 80 years later, no milk shake or mojito would be complete without one.