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Our Cups, Ourselves

Insulated cups have emerged as a surprising site of self expression

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Pink Stanley Quencher tumbler on a white table alongside fresh citrus. Stanley

You probably have an insulated cup, either given as a gift or purchased on your own, tucked inside the depths of your cabinet. Over the past decade or so, few home goods as humble as this have gotten as much shine. Thanks to wildly popular brands like Yeti, the multibillion dollar “hydration” market is dominated by vacuum-insulated cups that make bold promises about how long they can keep your water cold — and coffee hot — and everyone’s obsessed with them.

They’re all over social media, especially Instagram and TikTok. You’ve likely seen an influencer boasting the latest “it cup,” the 40-ounce Stanley Quencher, on your feeds. Bedecked in pastel colors and big enough to hold nearly a liter of water or coffee, they look a lot different than the hulking green Stanley insulated bottle that your dad or grandpa used to take coffee to his blue-collar job. Now a favorite among social media influencers, these mugs have inspired a legitimate cult following — or what the New York Times recently called a “sisterhood.” After being sold out for weeks on Stanley’s website, the Quencher cup boasted a waitlist that was more than 100,000 people deep, and resellers on eBay were hawking the cups for upwards of $120, more than three times its original retail value.

According to Terence Reilly, global president of Stanley, the brand really began to see an uptick in its drinkware sales about two or three years ago. “Our 100-year-old brand is known among outdoor aficionados, but we started to see a lot more folks using our drinkware at home or in the garden after yoga, not just on the campground,” Reilly says. “It’s amazing, because that fandom has grown almost completely organically, through a lot of word-of-mouth reviews, influencers posting about them on their own, and then they started selling out within minutes or hours of when we drop our latest colors.”

The progenitor of our current cup obsession is, arguably, the Nalgene water bottle. Invented in 1949, the plastic bottle with a wide-mouth lid was also popular among hikers and outdoors enthusiasts before it became a status symbol for high schoolers and college students in the early aughts. This ascent occurred at the same time that our American obsession with drinking lots and lots of water was cemented. By 2011, experts were already wondering if “waterlogged” Americans were drinking too much. It seems like an absurd distinction, but the obsession with cups actually differs slightly from interest in trendy water bottles, like Nalgene and Hydro Flasks, as a matter of practicality. Cups are for grown-ups, I tell myself when I add yet another cup to my overflowing cabinets, people who have to mainline coffee on their hour-long commute and sip cocktails after work. (Of course, it’s technically possible to sip coffee or cocktails from a water bottle, but that’s beside the point.)

In 2014, the cup that really took my obsession to the next level arrived. Like Stanley and Nalgene before it, Yeti also began as an outdoors brand, focusing initially on floatable coolers that would appeal to fishers. When it first introduced its Rambler tumbler in two sizes — 20-ounce and 30-ounce — there was an immediate retail frenzy, and the cups were sold out everywhere. I remember because I was in search of one at the time — they were popular among my friends and family in the small town where I grew up. I hunted extensively, and ended up plunking down $40 — more than I’d paid for a full set of nice drinking glasses at that time — for a single stainless steel Yeti mug.

I was instantly smitten. There are a lot of things that make a Yeti, or any cup like it, superior to a plain-Jane water glass or plastic cup. They’re heavily insulated, which means that not only do you get to have icy cold water (or piping hot coffee) for literally hours on end, but you also avoid any condensation on the outside making your hands clammy and leaving water marks on your furniture. They’re also pretty indestructible, able to withstand being drunkenly dropped from a second-story balcony (a fact I know from personal experience) and capable of keeping drinks cool through even the most brutal of Texas summers. Somebody, and I wish I could remember who, told me once that their Yeti tumbler still had ice in it after being in their car that caught on fire.

After I scored my Yeti I took it everywhere, and even ordered a customized decal of my monogram in turquoise glitter to decorate the outside. I slapped on a slew of ironic stickers, and bought specially sized bootleg straws on Amazon to fit the hole in the lid before Yeti introduced a straw of their own. I wasn’t the only person obsessed with Yeti, either: Every soccer mom and frat bro in America was into these cups (and coolers, though to a lesser extent) and wore their devotion on their chests, literally — the brand makes T-shirts and hats emblazoned with the Yeti logo, and it’s not uncommon to see one of its stickers slapped on the back of a tailgate in Texas.

“We see lots of people who make their cups or their bottles a representation of themselves,” says LeighAnn Bakunas, director of community marketing at Yeti. “Customization is definitely top-of-mind for all of us, and because our tumblers are at a higher price point, we want to make sure that this is a product that people can adapt to be multi-purpose and multi-use in a way that’s beneficial for their lives.”

When first introduced, the Yeti Rambler tumbler was only available in polished stainless steel, which encouraged people to DIY their own customizations. Now it’s sold in a slew of colors, and the company makes different types of lids so that customers can alter the tumblers even further to their personal drinking preferences. It also sells packs of adorably designed stickers perfect for decorating your cup, with a wide variety of customization options — ranging from your first name to the logo of your favorite sports team — on its website.

The way a cup can serve as a point of self-expression has played a huge role in the massive success of Yeti, Stanley, and other insulated cup brands. Cups don’t only help people contain water, they also give us a way to show others a bit about who we are. My own water cup is covered in stickers, almost like an old-timey suitcase, from places I’ve been and bands I like. There’s an extremely cool “This Machine Kills Fascists” sticker from the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma right up front, and I’d be a fool to suggest that it wasn’t there as some sort of signifier of my own politics.

In addition to the big brands, there are also a slew of independent makers selling cups and tumblers of all kinds on sites like Etsy. TikTok creator Shannon Martens, known as @mrsdutchie73 on the platform, regularly has thousands of people tune in to her TikTok livestreams to watch as she drips and swirls a variety of colored resins on the outside of a stainless steel cup to create intricate marbled patterns. While her cups are wildly popular, Martens’s business has turned her into a sought-after creator; she now offers private Zoom sessions during which a buyer can watch their cup being crafted, and she also sells shout-outs on Cameo for $30 each. At present, all 16 different types of cups on offer on Martens’s website are sold out.

It appears that cups are the millennial (and Gen Z) version of a security blanket. Now known as the “emotional support cup,” owning a “perfect” cup is the kind of purchase that offers continual hits of dopamine — every time you use it and it keeps your drink the appropriate temperature, you’re reminded of exactly why you bought it, and every time you post it on social media, the likes you rack up are further proof of your good taste. Cups are also reassuring, just like they were when we were little kids who used sippy cups to both consume liquids and calm our childhood anxiety. It’s just that now we’ve got the money to spend on fancier, better ones that meet those emotional — and hydration — demands in a more aesthetically pleasing way.

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