Photo by Bruce Ayres via Getty Images

Stopping work to drink coffee is a relatively recent invention

Siobhan Wallace
October 18, 2017

It’s no secret that advertising has been selling us on breakfast since its early days. “Mikey likes it,” “Good to the last drop,” and “the breakfast of champions” are all taglines that evoke memories of specific breakfast-centric commercials. Madison Avenue is still pushing the concept of a “normal” American breakfast as bacon, eggs, toast, cereal, orange juice and coffee. After we’ve left the morning table, they follow us around, letting us know that yogurt and granola bars double as healthy afternoon snacks. But if you just want a quick pick-me-up, you should "Give yourself a ‘Coffee-break’—And get what Coffee gives to you.” But a coffee break wasn’t always a part of the workday. In fact, it was another marketing move brought to you by the lobbyists at the Pan-American Coffee Bureau.

America has been running on coffee since we figured out that the drink is much better at delivering caffeine than tea. By the turn of the 20th century, it was a staple in the American diet and something even our presidents drank with abandon. That trade was dominated by the mighty coffee nation of Brazil, which used manipulative tactics to extract a premium price for the beans. In order to prevent prices from dropping too low, the Brazilians would stockpile beans in warehouses. When the price was high, they’d sell off the extra supply. The Great Depression sent coffee prices plummeting to eight cents a pound in 1931 ($1.20 in 2017 dollars), causing widespread political instability and prompting the Brazilian coffee merchants to burn $30 million worth of coffee ($500 million today). The lack of banks and money meant no loans were available to keep their price schemes going, plus other Latin American coffee-producing nations wanted in on Brazil’s trade.

The world’s first Coffee Conferences happened in 1936 and 1937 with the goal of strengthening the trade to our coffee-addicted populace. To help with that, the delegates created the Pan-American Coffee Bureau. The Bureau, working with the Federal Advertising Agency, began heavily advertising coffee as a drink as opposed to the previous brand-specific advertising. That is, until then you had Folgers telling you to buy their cans instead of Maxwell House and vice versa, but now the Bureau just wanted you to drink coffee, any coffee. One of their key sponsorships was of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Sunday evening address to the nation, including the one she gave on December 7, 1941. 

The outbreak of World War II and coffee rationing hurt the industry, but one important development did occur. To help keep workers in defense plants going, many supervisors began offering actual afternoon coffee breaks in addition to the usual lunch break. Once the soldiers came home though, the appeal of these breaks dimmed in the eyes of employers. The coffee traders themselves weren’t too worried, thanks to as the ending of rations and the reopened European market.

Image via wikimedia commons

Coffee advertisers took the trend and turned it into a lifestyle.The Pan-American Coffee Bureau decided to make coffee breaks a “thing” in 1952. Out was the previous campaign of “Good things happen over Coffee," now you should “Give yourself a ‘Coffee-break’” Norman Rockwell-esque ads ran in The Saturday Evening Post and Life magazine featuring white office workers, baseball players, and a Saks Fifth Avenue dressmaker relaxing during their afternoon coffee klatsch, knowing that they will now “work better” and “think better.” The following year, John Wayne got to display his trout fishing prowess in one ad, while in another drivers were encouraged to make their coffee break a “Coffee-stop” in order to “stay alert and stay alive,” no seatbelts required.

The coffee break pitch worked, and the concept spread to other workplaces. The United Auto Workers even went on strike in 1964 to get coffee breaks added into their contracts. In the 1952 presidential election, when Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower rang against Democrat Adlai Stevenson, the National Federation of Republican Women started having “Coffee Hours for Eisenhower.” These informal meetings in private homes brought campaign representatives together with women during their afternoon coffee breaks and may have contributed Eisenhower’s landslide win. The GOP would expand upon this idea for the 1956 campaign season when an official “Operation Coffee Cup” movement was formed. This time, Eisenhower and his Vice President, Richard Nixon, would themselves meet with housewives over coffee to engage “in carefully scripted conversations with a select group of women,” as told by author Catherine E. Rymph in Republican Women: Feminism and Conservatism From Suffrage Through the Rise of the New Right. And so the coffee break was cemented in American workplace culture. It’s quite the paradox that 60 years later the GOP would give rise to the Tea Party. As of yet, there are no efforts to have Tea Party tea parties.

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