Coffee and the Revolution of Daily Life

Excerpt of an article written by Peter Lummel, 2003, Open-Air Museum Domain Dahlem, City Museum of Berlin, Berlin, Germany. ALHFAM members can access the full text of this article and thousands more though the A.S.K. database. Not a member? Join today!

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Coffee and the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial revolution transformed the world, starting with England in the eighteenth century and continuing with Continental Europe and North America in the nineteenth century. In those days most people in the industrialized and urbanized world had to work away from home six days a week and often more than 12 or 14 hours a day. The income was low, the work was hard, the air in the factories was hot and bad. At home and at work the diet was not sufficient; hunger was the daily companion of a lot of workers.

Especially in the factories, hot and stimulating coffee gained importance as a substitute for longer breaks, for warm food at home, and for hard liquor. Canteens were opened in the factories, and from them workers could acquire coffee at a very low price. The entrepreneurs took account of the new scientific knowledge about nutrition and the diet of the working class. Scientists compared the coffee and its effect on the human body to the importance of oil for a machine.

The term “coffee break” was created in the US after World War II. In 1952 the Pan American Coffee Bureau launched a radio, newspaper and magazine campaign with the theme “Give Yourself a Coffee-Break — And Get What Coffee Gives to You.” After that, more than 80 percent of the firms had introduced a coffee break.

And what about coffee at work in our own time? There seems to be a direct link between coffee and the new economy and other new creative jobs, computer jobs in particular, if you have observed coffee advertisements. And isn’t it one of the rituals of modern business discussions— also in our museums— to offer a cup of coffee to our guests?

Coffee and Revolutionary Inventions

Photo: Katie Cannon

A last and almost unknown revolution of coffee has to do with the Internet. Does anybody know the real story of the webcam at all? In 1991 fifteen computer scientists of the University of Cambridge, who were addicted to coffee, had only one common coffee machine in. Every day they had to deal with the problem that the coffee pot was already empty, after they had walked the long way to the coffee machine. So they wrote a new computer program and used a special camera to be able to check the level of the coffee pot on their screen in their local intranet. Beginning in 1993, everybody could see the so-called “Trojan coffee pot” via the World Wide Web, and after a short time it became a trendy Internet address for thousands of people who loved coffee and that crazy story. So it was the power of coffee that led to the invention of the world’s first webcam.

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Peter Lummel, “Coffee and the Revolution of Daily Life” in Debra A. Reid, ed., Proceedings of the 2003 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 109-112.

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