Jun 5, 2014

The Evolution of Office Drinkware

Did you know that the coffee mug technically predates the drinking of coffee? Archeologists have discovered what could be classified as a mug dating as far back as the Stone Age. Of course, mugs can be used to drink a variety of beverages, but coffee is what it’s mostly closely associated with. And, considering they were made from bone during that time, wouldn’t that be an awesome way to start your day?

As cool as a mug made out of bone might be, technology and branding have evolved coffee mugs, and by extension, tumblers, water bottles and other drinkware to better suit our needs from a practical, ethical, aesthetic and marketing standpoint.

Here’s a peek into how the coffee mug and other drinkware moved from the Stone Age to a prominent place in offices across the world.

Creating and Perfecting

The Stone Age is recognized as an era where Paleolithic man started using simple tools crafted from stone to create things. Not much has changed, as one of man’s first craft projects was a mug.

Around the same time in Greece and other places around the world, between 6,500 and 3000 BCE, the first clay mugs were shaped by hand and later facilitated by the potter’s wheel. These mugs didn’t have an optimal user experience as the thick walls were unfit for mouths. However, metal working techniques soon smoothed out the thick walls and helped introduce mugs made from bronze, silver and gold. While the thought of mugs made from precious metals sounds awesome, the biggest innovation during this era was the use of porcelain in China in 600 CE.

Keeping Hot Things Hot and Cold Things Cold

The 19th and 20th centuries were a time of great scientific experimentation, so it’s no wonder that some of that scientific know-how trickled down to drinkware. This era led not only to the development of technology that controls the temperature of drinks, but the emergence of brands that we closely associate with the technology.

In 1892, Sir James Dewar, a noted scientist at Oxford, realized that the insulated bottles made from glass that he was using for his lab experiments could also be used for beverages, inventing the vacuum flask. When Dewar failed to patent his invention, two German glass blowers took his discovery and started the company we know today as Thermos in 1904.

A few years later in 1913, William Stanley made another discovery in the realm of insulation. Stanley realized that metal could be used as an insulator to keep drinks hot. By 1915, the Stanley vacuum flask was in mass production. Fast forward a few years to 1946, where two engineers out of Detroit made the discovery that the natural properties of air could be used to keep hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold. Taking the last three letters of each of their last names, the duo created the company we know today as Tervis.

The Impact of Branding & Design

Throughout the mid and late 20th century people were still tinkering with various materials to create and insulate drinkware. During this time, we also started to see marketing and branding play a strong role in its development and proliferation.

Around the 1970’s, manufacturers like Whirley Industries started experimenting with plastic mugs and other drinkware featuring slogans and acting as promotional items for brands. This continued into the 1980’s and helped make the travel mug a household item. Businesses like Dunkin’ Donuts, Wawa, Circle K and many others across the country would create coffee clubs where patrons could buy a mug and get a discount on their morning coffee, making brands part of their daily routines. 

In the last few years, we’ve started seeing the impact of design. Sigg, the Swedish metal water bottle maker, made their bottles a bit more fashionable by introducing their line of colorful water bottles with the distinctive cap. Similarly, Tervis became a household name through licensing deals, turning casual buyers into brand fanatics.


Who knew so much history and technology was behind the coffee mug? The promotional water bottle you get at a trade show? Or the tumbler with the mascot from your alma mater that you may never drink out of but looks cool on your desk? But its no surprise that so much thought is behind something we want to spend the least amount of time thinking about. When we grab our travel mug out of the dishwasher or just need a drink of water, it’s a way of sustaining ourselves to achieve the next important task.

It’s also important that companies put real thought behind their promotional items and how they impact their target audiences. While a coffee mug is a no-brainer when it comes to trade shows and giveaways, as no one passes up a cup, there is value in matching the appropriate drinkware item, along with offering design that connects with your audience. At the Icebox, we take a company’s brand message and connect it with the culture, trends and attitudes of today to create memorable promotional items. While a logo might just be logo, it is important to explore the possibilities that come with branding.

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