Men drinking coffee at the "One Cent Coffee Stand" of the Greater N.Y. Philanthropic Society. George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress

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.

Coffee ads cover this page of the D.C.-based Evening Star on November 23, 1920. (Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers/Library of Congress)

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.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. The Presidio Terrace neighborhood
    POV

    The Problem of Progressive Cities and the Property Tax

    The news that a posh San Francisco street was sold for delinquent taxes exposes the deeper issue with America’s local revenue system.

  2. Times Square, 1970.
    Life

    The New York That Belonged to the City

    Hyper-gentrification turned renegade Manhattan into plasticine playground. Can the city find its soul again?

  3. "Gift Horse"—a skeletal sculpture of a horse by artist Hans Haacke—debuted on the Fourth Plinth in London's Trafalgar Square in 2015.
    Design

    What To Do With Baltimore's Empty Confederate Statue Plinths?

    Put them to work, Trafalgar Square style.

  4. POV

    Grenfell Was No Ordinary Accident

    The catastrophic fire that killed at least 80 in London was the inevitable byproduct of an ideology that vilified the poor.

  5. New public notice signs from Atlanta's Department of City Planning.
    Design

    Atlanta's Planning Department Makeover

    A new seal, a new name, and most importantly, new signs that people will actually read.