Red Plastic Dixie Cups and Other Secret American Icons

Posted on March 7, 2010 by pacificyorkshirebird


I thought I’d heard it all. Every single perception lovingly held by British folks about America had been brought to my attention for critical assessment.

Why is it called the the World Series when it is only American teams?

Why are there so many fat people in America? How come you’re not fat?

Why do you say “bay-zil” instead of “baah-zil”

What on earth is a fraternity or sorority and why do they use Greek letters for their names?

Is your fridge the size of my flat?

Why do you talk about distances in minutes instead of miles?

Yes, I had heard it all. Until today.

Red plastic dixie cups have been called an icon of American culture. Who knew? Not a single British person has ever asked me about red dixie cups. Suddenly they show up in the comments of this blog post from The Guardian about looking for American tv cliches in real life America.

Yes, I have had many a drink from a red dixie cup. We use them at picnics. We used too many in college, usually paired with some scary form of jungle juice or a keg. Of course, the cups also make an appearance in the occasional game of beer pong. I wouldn’t be surprised if some American families even use them on a daily basis in their homes. We even used them at the outdoor rehearsal dinner for our wedding. Oh yeah, rehearsal dinners – another topic that puzzled my British in-laws.

But, it had never occurred to me that these cups were absent from my life in Britain. Nor had I considered that anyone outside of America may have picked up on their presence by watching American tv shows.

I can think of plenty of American icons: Barbie, Coca Cola, Elvis, pick up trucks, McDonald’s, Michael Jackson etc… But red dixie cups? I can’t believe that is the item causing me to rethink whether I fully immersed myself in British culture during my time there. There must still be hundreds of other things about America boggling the minds of our transatlantic friends.  Perhaps I will ponder these while I sip my Cherry Coke Zero from a shiny red plastic dixie cup FULL of ice.

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What Others Are Saying

  1. yankeebean May 10, 2010 at 8:30 am

    Did anyone else use red a blue dixie cups as a form of ‘carding’ at parties in college?

    If I went to a big party, they’d still ask for ID at the door – if you were under 21, they have you a blue cup which meant you weren’t allowed to have any booze. If they gave you a red cup, it meant you were allowed to drink.

    Not a rock solid system, but I always thought it was an admiral attempt to remain legal :)

  2. Rachel May 9, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    YES! “Why do you talk about distances in minutes instead of miles?” I have had so many arguments with my boyfriend and his friends over this, but it makes PERFECT sense! I currently live in Jersey Channel Islands, an island that is 9 by 5 miles. To get to Town it’s 3 miles away from his house and thats about a 15 – 20 minute drive…but I can drive 3 miles back home in America in 4-5 minutes. So miles in the American sense wouldn’t work here and vice versa because we all relate distance to how long it usually takes us to drive to some where in the place we’re from. If I knew that to get to the other side of the island is only 9 miles away, I’d go, cool well that will only take me about 15 minutes then if that. Not the actual 30 – 40 it actually takes because of all the windy roads. Time works for everyone, and using it to describe how far something is makes perfect sense! It makes it easier for EVERYONE! lol

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  4. Michelle March 29, 2010 at 10:15 am

    I’m glad that one of you mentioned your SNFY blog in a comment on that “red cups” Guardian article, because that’s how I learned about your site this evening. I’ve been enjoying reading your past entries and making some comments on them. (Even if the original blog entries were from quite some time ago, I hope you still allow comments on them.)

    I even think this evening has been crucial for convincing me to decide to move back to the UK. I lived there for 11 years, but had to come back home 2 years ago to the midwest at very short notice to take care of my mom, who had a serious accident.

    I am now able to move on my own to anywhere in the US (I need to get out of the rust belt as soon as possible, though, for my own sanity) or back to the UK. I don’t have a job now, so that will be my first priority after I decide where to live. I don’t know whether to go back to the UK, or try to stay in the US — if I stayed in the US, I would move somewhere brand new and different, to one or the other coast.

    This should be an exciting time for me, but I’ve just been completely frozen with indecision, because the news just keeps getting worse and worse out of the UK (from what I can tell – I try to keep up with several UK newspapers and websites) – the economy, the unemployment, the very depressed attitude of most people, the political problems and concerns and election coming up, the general messes and malaise and disappointment. Sometimes, just reading the day’s news from there makes me cry.

    I’m at a big fork in the road in my personal story – I’m single, I’m middle-aged, I’ll need to find a new job, I don’t really have many ties anywhere. I do have some friends in the UK, and I have a master’s degree from there, and over a decade of history there. But sometimes, it’s better to move to a new place rather than moving backwards, and a lot of my UK-based friends have now had to leave the country for work or for their families, so my life wouldn’t be the same as before if I moved back there, anyway.

    I love London and never felt afraid there (except for a few specific neighbourhoods), but oddly I’m pretty afraid of most large American cities – LA, NY, Chicago, Miami, etc. I have no concept of what it would be like to try to move to NYC, for example – it just seems expensive, scary, difficult, and complicated. I don’t really feel any pull to go to a large American city, but I can’t live in the middle of the US or in an American town – I need lots of things to do and cosmopolitan people around and to be relatively near an airport, etc.

    Mostly my heart tells me to go back to the UK, but I’m just afraid that it’s kind of collapsing in on itself right now. I don’t know if it would be a very foolish choice for me to go there (if the short-term future of the UK is going to be as grim as it seems to be predicted to be). I will need to get a job, to find a place to live, etc., and I don’t have much money now so it will all be on a shoestring until I can get a job, and maybe finding an okay job is really tough to do right now – I don’t know – I would guess that it is!

    I also have not enjoyed some things about the US during these 2 years I’ve been here (without having chosen or planned to move back here). The political divide, the unhealthiness, the wastefulness, the sad, sad state of my dilapidated old rust belt home town (huge unemployment here, many foreclosures, lots of armed robberies of pharmacies and bank branches). I feel uncomfortable with some aspects of US society, and am not sure whether moving to a large American city would help that much, even if the surrounding countryside is beautiful, instead of flat and ugly (which it is in my hometown region).

    Silly me, I’ve been waiting for months for things to turn upwards in the UK, to feel a little more assured that moving my life back there (a big undertaking, harder on you the older you are – if you are alone- and when you have no safety net) will be a good thing to do. But as the months have ticked by, things have gone downhill there. I’m stuck in limbo, afraid to make any choices, because none of them seem to be that secure right now.

    However, reading your blog entries tonight gave me some laughs and reminded me of some things about the UK that I’d forgotten. Writing my own comments to some of your posts gave me a chance to recall what living in the UK was like, and what I miss about it. I’m a lot closer to deciding to just take a chance and fling myself back over, without a place to live, without a job (both are relatively hard to find from so many thousands of miles away).

    How does it look from the inside of the UK? Are things as bad as they seem from the current newspaper articles (of all the main papers)?

    Are the general employment prospects for 40-ish women with master’s degrees non-existent, or actually not bad?

    In times like these, I will have to move somewhere first, and look for a job from within the country. (After a lot of hard work, last year I got a Tier 1 visa, so I can work for any UK employer, or even work for myself.)

    Where would be the best places in the UK to think of moving to, in your opinion? I am a veteran of the London rental market, but it’s a toughie, especially when you are approaching it from outside, and so very expensive when you don’t yet have a job.

    I’ve just rented the DVDs of the tv show “Mistresses” to get a flavor of UK life (it was on tv after I left the UK), and the series makes Bristol look really lovely (it didn’t hurt that all the characters had million-pound houses and flats!) I wouldn’t be averse to moving to a UK city other than London, if that made sense.

    Well, if anybody has any thoughts / advice for me about a good place to go in the US, or trying the UK again, I’m all ears. Thank you.

    • yankeebean March 29, 2010 at 8:52 pm


      Thanks SO MUCH for stopping by and for all your awesome comments. You’re a welcome addition to the SNFY home-sted!

      It’s funny that you should mention Bristol, that’s what I was going to mention. I lived in York for my first 4 years in the UK and then moved to Bristol in 2009. I. LOVE. IT. HERE. I have a big crush on this city…

      I run my own business doing session work and some web stuff – I’m not raking it in, but I eat :) Everyone is busting their hump to stay afloat in the recession, but Bristol has been one of the least effected places in the UK.

      Good luck with all the decisions ahead of you!! Keep us posted!

  5. katieseattle March 29, 2010 at 1:06 am

    I hear quite a bit about enormous portions in the US (because British portions are so minuscule ^o) ) .

  6. Steve Shawcross March 28, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    Can’t say that I’ve ever associated Dixie cups with the USA, anymore than I’ve associated Tupperware with the UK!

    Questions about flat/fridge size are usually asked facetiously… well I would hope so anyway!

  7. pacificyorkshirebird March 26, 2010 at 1:30 am

    Hi Julie,

    You have it right. People do use them at picnics, parties etc… I think the dixie cups that the people were referring to in the comments of the Guardian article are the 16 ounce plastic party cups.

    Perhaps a better known brand is Solo:

    It’s true that most people think of the tiny paper cups in dentists offices when you say ‘dixie cups’. My title on this post is confusing that way. Sorry about that!

  8. Julie March 26, 2010 at 12:12 am

    A-ha! Ok, thanks for the explanation. I thought they were some kind of picnic item, reading all the other comments! LOL. I was totally wrong! :-D

  9. Julie March 21, 2010 at 6:41 pm

    What on earth is a dixie cup???

    • peacefulyorkshire March 25, 2010 at 8:09 pm

      Hi julie,
      Dixie cups are tiny little cups that only hold tiny bits of liquid. people use them sometimes after they brush their teeth to rinse. they are made of paper and I would say they had a massive heydey in the 90′s when I was growing up. People would put Dixie cup dispensers in their bathrooms and the cups would be decorated in all kinds of ‘hip and trendy colors’. I forgot about those babies!

  10. Sirmelja March 9, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    I always seemed to have a stash of these hanging around – great party and picnic gear. Plus, they really do wash and re-use pretty well :-)

  11. Moni March 9, 2010 at 8:53 am

    Dixie cups will forever be linked with college in my mind. I don’t think I went to a single party that didn’t include them!

  12. dyana March 8, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    i second the chinese food container comment. my partner wad godsmacked when we ordered take out back home. he had thought they were a made forr hollywood thing and didn’t really exist.

  13. dragonflysky March 8, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    I really have lived over here a while, because I had forgotten all about red plastic dixie cups! I know some people that have those as their fine crystal! ha ha … thanks for linking to that article, too. It is fun to get a view of American culture from the people whose culture I have been viewing for the past two and a half years!

    • peacefulyorkshire March 8, 2010 at 4:37 pm

      exactly, who KNEW about Dixie cups!?? And here I took them for granted as my ‘American in Britain’ self….

  14. Iota March 8, 2010 at 12:03 am

    I’m still reeling from the fact that that post got 367 comments!

    The red dixie cup would always remind me of school events, I think.

  15. alisha March 7, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Yes, the red dixie cups! I thought they were universal too until my husband pointed them out as American. Since then I’ve become strangely fond of these cups that I’d previously been completely indifferent to. I’m not sure why only the red ones are famous though, because I’ve used plenty of yellows and blues in my day. Red is definitely more iconic though.

  16. Kim March 7, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    The best question I ever had was from a Cypriot friend living in England. He asked if in the US we really get Chinese food in those little white containers with the handles like you see on TV. I had never thought about it, but yes, indeed our Chinese comes in those boxes. He thought that was the coolest thing! Now I notice them every time I see them on TV!

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