Not the last straw, but the first straw

soft drink and straw

The job of a novelist is to pay attention to the everyday world, to notice the changes in language and behaviour that make up quotidian existence. In Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844), Charles Dickens had his eponymous hero travel to the United States (a journey closely mirroring the novelist’s own journey to North America). Chuzzlewit notices many big facts about the new Republic: the contradiction between the pervasive rhetoric of freedom and the reality of slavery, the widespread worship of wealth and landed titles co-existing with an egalitarian ethos, and the constant pressures toward conformity. In all this, Chuzzlewit was the fictional counterpart to Alex De Tocqueville, whose own travels in America took place a decade earlier.

But Chuzzlewit also takes in many smaller details about American life, notably the love of drinking soft drinks. In chapter 17, Martin Chuzzlewit is perhaps the first character in English literature to witness someone drinking with a straw:

‘You won’t say that to-morrow morning, sir,’ returned Mr Tapley; ‘nor even to-night, sir, when you’ve made a trial of this.’ With which he produced a very large tumbler, piled up to the brim with little blocks of clear transparent ice, through which one or two thin slices of lemon, and a golden liquid of delicious appearance, appealed from the still depths below, to the loving eye of the spectator.

‘What do you call this?’ said Martin.

But Mr Tapley made no answer; merely plunging a reed into the mixture – which caused a pleasant commotion among the pieces of ice – and signifying by an expressive gesture that it was to be pumped up through that agency by the enraptured drinker.

Martin took the glass with an astonished look; applied his lips to the reed; and cast up his eyes once in ecstasy. He paused no more until the goblet was drained to the last drop.

‘There, sir!’ said Mark, taking it from him with a triumphant face; ‘if ever you should happen to be dead beat again, when I ain’t in the way, all you’ve got to do is to ask the nearest man to go and fetch a cobbler.’

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