Coffee History: The Coffee Break

There weren't always interns balancing precarious armloads of lattes for everyone in Accounting, and not every office or factory break room had a bottomless supply of bad-but-free sludge boiling away on a hot plate all day, but nowadays nobody would know what to do without the coffee break. Today, we'll investigate the history of this workaday ritual.

Coffee has gone hand-in-hand with business and industry almost since its earliest days, when folks would gather around a pot of the stuff boiling over an open flame or hot coals, sharing the day's news and trading tips while sipping from tiny cups of liquid productivity. But as commerce got more mechanized and mass production became the order of the day, there was less time to fraternize: Rather than linger with a long coffee and a flapping jaw, workers started having to take their coffee whenever and wherever they could get it. And before the eight-hour workday (not to mention legally mandated lunch periods or breaks), that meant most had to suffer through the afternoon slog as their energy faded and their stomachs growled.

One of the first companies to offer an official breather during the workday was Buffalo, New York's Barcolo Manufacturing Company, which initiated the regulated recess in 1902. (The company's now known as Barcalounger, the reclining-chair company: Talk about folks who know from takin' it easy.)

As industrialized, commercial (read: fast and cheap) coffee became the rage, cafeterias and Automats all over the country were quick to dispense mugs to folks shuffling in for speedy lunches and occasional clandestine caffeine rendezvous off shift. After WWII, the first coffee vending machines started popping up in office break rooms like jittery daisies in a field. Using a liquid coffee concentrate and hot water, these robo-caffeinating Kwik Kafes—largely credited to inventor and former military engineer Cyrus Melikian in 1946—could dispense a piping cup in three seconds, ensuring that factory drones could be back at their stations in 10 to 15 minutes tops.

Naturally, employers were quick to notice their wage-earners' improved performance after those cups of joe, which was pretty convincing incentive for them to keep the habit on the time clock. But it wasn't until 1952 that the midday reprieve got its official title. In that year, the Pan-American Coffee Bureau—a corporate interest group designed to encourage Americans to drink coffees from our southern neighbors in places like Colombia and Brazil—launched an advertising campaign urging folks to "Give yourself a Coffee-Break—and Get What Coffee Gives to You."

Despite the fact that the copy itself is somewhat awkward, the notion took hold fast; before long, morning and afternoon breaks became commonplace, even occasionally protected by law. And now, with so many people setting up shop in "coffices" all over the country, it seems like we're more inclined to take a work break from our coffee day than the other way around.

Hey, I can live with that.