Dec. 2, 2002
-- According to an old Turkish proverb, coffee should be "black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love." As a brew, coffee has been around for centuries. But in this country, taking a daily break to drink it is a more recent phenomenon.
This week on Present at the Creation
, NPR's ongoing series on the origins of American icons, Special Correspondent Susan Stamberg
traces the history of the coffee break.
The world's first coffee break, Stamberg reports, "probably took place before 1000 A.D. in Abyssinia (today's Ethiopia). Legend has it that a goatherd named Kaldi noticed his goats dancing around on their skinny hind legs. Then he noticed the goats had eaten some red berries. Kaldi tried the berries; he started dancing, too; and so coffee break dancing was born!"
From those beginnings, Stamberg says, the story of coffee is "long and global." Arabians in the 13th century used the roasted, brewed beans to ease menstrual cramps. The first coffee shop opened in 15th-century Constantinople, where the Turks thought the drink was an aphrodisiac. By the mid-1600s, coffee replaced beer as New York City's favorite breakfast drink. In the 1700s in Leipzig, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a cantata about coffee. And in 1773, the Boston Tea Party made drinking coffee a patriotic duty.
The American ritual of taking a workday break for coffee, however, didn't begin until the early 20th century. The U.S. workplace of the late 19th century was a dreary place, says Howard Stanger, a historian of industrial relations at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y.: "There were frequent wage cuts, there was very little job security, few benefits. Unions for the most part, outside of skilled trades, were virtually non-existent."
But as the century turned, Stamberg says, "matters began to improve. Social reform was in the air. Legislation emerged to create a minimum wage, and workers' compensation." Companies and factories installed in-house lunchrooms, places "where workers could get away from the drudgery for a while" -- and the coffee break became part of the change.
What remains in dispute, though, is precisely which
U.S. company was the birthplace of the coffee break. Wayne Stephens makes this claim: "In 1902, the Barcolo Manufacturing Company in Buffalo, N.Y., started giving its employees coffee breaks. To our knowledge, that was the first time that had ever happened in American industry," says Stephens, CEO of Barcalounger, the company (now based in North Carolina) that began as Barcolo.
Though the company's historical records are somewhat sketchy, Stephens cites old newspaper reports quoting a Barcolo executive as saying, "The employees felt like they needed a mid-morning and mid-afternoon break... and one of the employees volunteered to heat the coffee up on a kerosene-fueled hot plate. The employees paid for the coffee... and started taking, obviously with the approval of management, about a 10- to 15-minute, mid-morning and mid-afternoon coffee break."
But elsewhere in Buffalo, historian Stanger makes a coffee break counterclaim. In the ledgers of the now-defunct Larkin Company -- a Buffalo firm that started by producing soap, and ended up as a big mail-order house -- Stanger found a 1901 entry on free coffee to employees. Larkin and Barcolo did business together, Stanger told Stamberg, so it's possible that Larkin gave free coffee to workers, but didn't give them time out to drink it. And it's possible that someone at Larkin mentioned the free coffee to someone at Barcolo, and Barcolo turned the idea into a coffee break. As Stamberg observes, "When you're talking coffee, anything
Wherever the coffee break originated, Stamberg says, it may not actually have been called
a coffee break until 1952. That year, a Pan-American Coffee Bureau ad campaign urged consumers, "Give yourself a Coffee-Break -- and Get What Coffee Gives to You."
Today, Stamberg says, Americans "are hooked on coffee," consuming about 350 million cups of it daily.
Read about caffeine and "The Lure of the Bean.
Listen to an Apr. 28, 1999, Talk of the Nation
discussion on the history of coffee
Listen to a July 18, 1999, All Things Considered
interview with Uncommon Grounds
author Mark Pendergrast about the role of coffee in our lives
Read an American RadioWorks
feature on "The Campaign to Humanize the Coffee Trade.
Search for more NPR reports on coffee
Read about another icon of relaxation featured in the Present at the Creation
series: the recliner
Read National Geographic
's history of coffee
The National Coffee Association
has information on world coffee types, how coffee becomes coffee and how to store and brew coffee.
bills itself as the world's leading coffee buying guide
Learn more about the coffee industry at the International Coffee Association
, which represents coffee exporting and importing countries.