Robert L. Hulseman, a purveyor of party supplies who created the red Solo cup, a simple yet ingenious product that debuted in the 1970s and has since become an essential supply for merrymaking from family cookouts to college keggers, died Dec. 21 at his home in Northfield, Illinois. He was 84.
The cause was complications from a series of strokes, said a son, Paul Hulseman.
Although not a household name, Hulseman was credited with designing a household product that surpassed even his wildest hopes for its success. His signature, stackable plastic cup – cherry-colored on the outside and white on the inside – reached ubiquity on the market and received an unexpected rhapsody from country singer Toby Keith.
Keith’s 2011 number “Red Solo Cup” described the product as the “best receptacle for barbecues, tailgates, fairs and festivals,” questioned the manhood of anyone who might prefer drinking from glass, and noted:
“A red Solo cup is cheap and disposable
“And in fourteen years they are decomposable
“And unlike my home they are not foreclosable.”
For roughly a quarter-century before his retirement in 2006, Hulseman led his family’s business, Solo Cup Co. His father, Leo J. Hulseman, who founded the company in 1936, traced the rise of throwaway dining products to World War II, when many Americans were at war or engaged in the war effort and restaurants lacked the manpower to wash traditional dinnerware.
The company was originally called Paper Container Manufacturing Co. and trafficked mainly in paper products, including the conical drinking cups that became one of the outfit’s calling cards. When Robert Hulseman joined the operation, he heeded the advice later memorably conveyed in the 1967 film “The Graduate” – “One word . . . plastics” – and led the business into new areas of indispensable disposability.
Solo produced all manner of dining supplies, including plates, cutlery and straws. But it became best known for the red Solo cup.
Philip Ephraim, who worked with Hulseman as director of engineering for the plastic division, credited him with designing the cup’s defining two-tone look, with a festive splash of color on the exterior and white on the interior, so that the beverage’s natural color remained visible.
Early Solo cups also came in blue, yellow and peach, but red proved the biggest crowd-pleaser. Later generations of the product featured a squarish base, instead of the original round one, for stability. The 16-ounce cups overtook smaller versions with the advent in the food industry of upsizing.
It was said that Hulseman intended Solo cups for picnics, but they also became the cup of choice for tailgate and keg parties. The shiny plastic exterior, perfectly suited to receive the markings of a Sharpie pen, allows revelers to label the cups as their own – a useful feature at large and convivial gatherings.
Robert Leo Hulseman was born in Chicago on April 5, 1932, and suffered from polio in his youth.
He joined his father’s company at 18, working on the factory floor and in purchasing before ascending the executive ranks. Besides the Solo cup, Hulseman was credited with developing a bathroom-friendly dispenser of small cups for mouthwash. With a colleague, Jack Clements, he helped design the Solo Traveler lid, used for cups containing coffee and other steaming beverages, that today is featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Hulseman became president in 1980 and chief executive shortly thereafter, according to his son. In 2004, Solo purchased a competitor, Sweetheart Cup. Around the time of his retirement, Forbes magazine reported that the company recorded a loss of $299 million on $670 million in sales. Dart Container Corp. bought the company in 2012.
Hulseman’s wife of six decades, the former Sheila Murphy, died in 2015, and their daughter, Jean Kloos, died in August.
Survivors include nine children, Robert Hulseman of Fort Myers, Florida; Richard Hulseman and Patricia Hulseman, both of Lake Bluff, Illinois; Paul Hulseman of Winnetka, Illinois, Margaret Kovach of Saratoga Springs, New York; Joseph Hulseman of Califon, New Jersey, Thomas Hulseman of Chicago, Lawrence Hulseman of Lake Forest, Illinois; and William Hulseman of Tacoma, Washington; a brother; and 29 grandchildren.
One feature of the Solo cup that helped explain its popularity was the series of ridges along its circumference, which some imbibers interpreted as measuring lines for liquor, wine and beer. Contrary to widespread belief, the lines were never intended for that purpose, Ephraim said, and were designed instead simply to strengthen the cup.