VII: “Bombs, Shells, Tanks, Planes, and Paper Cups and Containers” – Paper Cups and World War II

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Cover from Paper Cups – Essential in War, 1942. (Hugh Moore Dixie Cup Company Collection, Special Collections and College Archives, Skillman Library, Lafayette College.)

Four decades after their introduction to the public as part of the Progressive public health efforts, print media presented paper cups as integral to fighting the Second World War. Paper cups were called implements of war by paper cup manufacturers and government officials alike. During World War I the production of paper cups was encouraged to increase wartime public health and when World War II began the manufacture of paper cups and containers exploded in an effort to meet the needs of war plants, Navy bases, ships, Army posts, and hospitals. Advertisements, circulars, and prescriptive literature like the one poster below showed the different places that paper cups should be used to “guard against wartime epidemics.” Crowded defense areas brought public health concerns to the forefront, but paper cups were also seen as valuable through their ability to conserve manpower.

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Dixie WWII poster, around 1940. (Hugh Moore Dixie Cup Company Collection, Special Collections and College Archives, Skillman Library, Lafayette College.)

In 1942 approximately 50% of the total output of paper cups and containers was used by the armed forces according to the Cup and Container Institute, a trade association that worked to promote and facilitate “cooperative activities in the development and improvement of the industry.” This “indispensable ally” was a reason that patriotic Americans were exhorted to save waste paper and go without paper cups and containers at home. Paper cups became a part of the war effort in both the military and war industry. According to a 1944 article in The American Journal of Nursing soldiers depended on paper cups to drink from — and for target practice. Paper cups were also used to feed the “15,000,000 War Workers” as they were convenient, quick, and portable.

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Image from The Crucial Importance of Paper Cups to the War Effort, 1942. (Hugh Moore Dixie Cup Company Collection, Special Collections and College Archives, Skillman Library, Lafayette College.)

Paper cups were used on navy ships, at army bases, and in operations overseas. Because of the shortage of storage on ships and the ease with which they could be thrown away after use, paper cups were used to feed America’s men in uniform. Paper cups were also used by Medical and dental dispensaries, on troop trains, and on Army bases overseas.

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Illustration from Paper Cups – Essential in War, 1942. (Hugh Moore Dixie Cup Company Collection, Special Collections and College Archives, Skillman Library, Lafayette College.)

According to the Cup and Container Institute, paper cups were also often used during civilian emergencies. Paper cups could efficiently and safely feed large groups of civilians and be stored to meet emergency conditions.They were used in British air raid shelters and cities began storing them in quantity in case of an attack. Paper cups and containers were also used in USOs, ship soda fountains, canteens, and service clubs for refreshments. According to an undated booklet on “The Crucial Importance of Paper Cups to the War Effort,” civilians could not “effectively cater to the thirst of the men who throng the various recreation centers” were it not for paper cups.”

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Image from The Crucial Importance of Paper Cups to the War Effort, 1942. (Hugh Moore Dixie Cup Company Collection, Special Collections and College Archives, Skillman Library, Lafayette College.)

Advertisements told Americans that saving their scrap paper and reducing their use of paper goods during the war was part of their patriotic duty. Paper cup manufacturers such as Dixie also produced cups with patriotic logos such as the “Defend America” series shown below. Along with producing patriotic cups, paper cup manufacturers played on the insecurities of wartime in their advertising. Their ads suggested the comfort and familiarity brought to soldiers fighting over seas. Ads like the one below suggested that even though the soldiers were in a foreign land, they were able to drink water out of cups “just like back home.” These efforts kept disposable paper cups on the minds of consumers even while they couldn’t get their hands on them.

After World War II, paper cups even became a tool of civil defense even after the World War II. With atomic attacks on the minds of many following the end of the war, a stockpile of 2,000,000 paper cups and containers was kept at Annapolis in case of an attack or disaster should occur in Washington.

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