Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
We’ve been guzzling joe at work for more than a century.
In many offices, you’d be hard-pressed to find a desk without a half-full coffee mug, or an employee who doesn’t stop to refill at some point throughout the day.
Unsurprisingly, the origin of the “coffee break” is entwined with the evolution of the eight-hour work day, adopted by many factories in the early 1900s. The first vacuum-sealed coffee grounds were also released around 1900, by San Francisco-based company Hills Brothers, according to a Smithsonian video about America’s giddy love affair with the sludge. As unions gained traction, mandated respites became the norm—and many workers used that time in the middle of a shift to refuel by sipping mugs of coffee swirled with cream and sugar.
In the early 20th century, weary commuters trudged to street-side coffee stands on city corners, and a growing industry helped consumers brew their own. A full-page ad in a 1920 edition of the Washington, D.C.-based Evening Star newspaper included six tips for how to make a cup at home, reminding sippers that “all coffee is clear when properly strained.” Automats—sleek lunch counters prized for cleanliness and efficiency that boomed in the first half of the last century—also served up warm jolts of caffeine.
Within a few decades, coffee breaks had become a workplace ritual. Journalists suggested that the kaffeeklatsch—a German domestic tradition of gossiping around mugs of coffee—had been adopted by the American corporate culture.
An editorial in a 1959 issue of The Austin Statesman newspaper argued that, “if ‘operation coffee’ makes Joe Worker a brighter guy, his wife could reap a few benefits” by instating a coffee break in the home. It continues:
The average housewife is on the job long before the factory whistle blows or office routine begins and she’s still going strong after the business day is over. She’s heard of the eight-hour day, but even with our modern work-saving devices, she seldom enjoys one.
Other experts were quick to point out that stopping to swallow a gulp of coffee wasn’t a waste of time—instead, it could actually nurture professional relationships. In 1959, The Atlanta Constitution published an article with the headline, “Coffee Break Is More Than Goofing Off.” A UCLA professor told The New York Herald Tribune in 1961 that the office coffee break was “the town meeting brought up to date and dressed in work clothes.” That is to say, the coffee break served as a time to unload—to kvetch in solidarity with one’s co-workers. The professor explained:
As a focal site for ventilation of restrained expression, voicing of group opinions and general forum for the exchange of beefs and gripes, the coffee break setting serves as a steam head reduce in keeping pressures at a desirable level.
The morning refill and mid-afternoon slump are hardly new. And in response, we still gather around an office coffee pot to bemoan mind-numbing tasks or make benign jabs at co-workers, all in an effort to shake off the daily grind in 10 minutes or so.