The Birth of America’s Obsession With the Perfect Cup of Coffee - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Birth of America’s Obsession With the Perfect Cup of Coffee

The Birth of America’s Obsession With the Perfect Cup of Coffee

By Ian Graber-Stiehl


Because there’s wonky science behind that perfect cuppa.

By Ian Graber-Stiehl

Wanted: someone to set the record straight on coffee’s health effects and work out the recipe for a perfect cup

This was the National Coffee Roasters Association’s proposition to Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Samuel Prescott in 1920, in exchange for $40,000 worth of funding (half a million today). The public was fed up with snake-oil-style health ads and were newly protected from fraudulent pseudo-medical packaging by legislation. So coffee peddlers needed more precise, scientific advertising — and nothing embodied precision like MIT.

Prescott coffee web

Professor Samuel Cate Prescott in his new laboratory devoted to perfecting coffee in 1920.

Source MIT Museum

Prescott accepted the gig and was soon monitoring coffee’s effects on rabbits. He separated decades of quackery from legitimate literature, sipping obscene quantities of brown gold for three years before delivering the perfect cuppa: “One tablespoon of coffee per eight ounces of water, just short of boiling, in glass or ceramic containers, never boiled, reheated or reused.” Prescott didn’t want his fairly basic research bandied about, but that didn’t stop the coffee roasters from plastering his quotes for 36 million newspaper readers to see. Just 20 years earlier, coffee was known for being cut with sawdust, but brewing had now become an exercise in perfection.

To fully understand coffee brewing’s empirical affair, we need to rewind to the magnates, Mad men and bad science involved. Rising demand throughout the 19th century drove massive expansion of Brazilian plantations. Coffee men bet and bought like stockbrokers, on wisps of rumors of boom or bust in Brazil, until, by the 1890s, natural selection had honed an oligopoly of coffee-industry early birds like Folgers, Chase and Sanborn.

The late 19th century was a boom time for claims from patent medicines and psychological misinformation.

Mark Pendergrast, coffee historian

Of the magnates, John Arbuckle wrote the book on coffee salesmanship. His brew was conveniently prepacked with prize-redeemable coupons in every bag, packaged in beautifully crafted collectible crates. When Hermann Sielcken, Arbuckle’s biggest competitor, targeted Native American buyers by saying his coffee made men as strong as the lion on the wrapper, Arbuckle retorted that his insignia’s angel was stronger than 10,000 lions. If “Lion wants to beat my angel, they’ll have to put on their label a picture of God himself,” he mused.


Arbuckle modernized coffee advertising with two Don Draper-ish tricks: undermining self-worth and promising health. People had argued about coffee’s healthiness for hundreds of years, but it was Arbuckle’s ads that equated skilled coffee brewing with wifeliness, exploiting housewives’ insecurities, and healthy living.

The industry soon adopted his suggestive, insecurity-targeting advertising style, but they weren’t alone. A flash flood of snake-oil-like entrepreneurs had also noticed, and as coffee historian Mark Pendergrast tells OZY, “the late 19th century was a boom time for claims from patent medicines and psychological misinformation.”

Among them was traveling salesman C.W. Post, whose concept of a “coffee substitute” of burned-and-ground cereal called Postum seemed doomed to fail in 1895. But he pushed it with a fierce campaign, with headlines like “Lost Eyesight Through Coffee Drinking,” citing quack physicians and equating caffeine to “cocaine, morphine, nicotine and strychnine.” Post claimed that customers could “recover from any ordinary disease by discontinuing coffee … and using Postum.” Within a decade he was a millionaire, his $1.5 million advertising budget rivaling the entire coffee industry’s.

The brazenness that made him rich also proved his downfall. After Collier’s Weekly — a periodical that was muckraking fraudulent advertising at the time — lambasted Postum, he slandered it and got sued, with the coffee peddlers eagerly watching as the prosecutor convinced the jury to “make this man honest again,” according to The New York Times. Coffee trade magazines called out the father of the Food and Drug Administration, Harvey Wiley, for ignoring Post in his food-industry investigations. Wiley was no friend of the coffee industry; he believed, as Pendergrast notes in his book Uncommon Grounds, that “coffee drunkenness is a commoner failing than the whiskey habit.” But Post’s ads were an embarrassing pain, and he finally forced Post to stop advertising Postum as coffee.

While the coffee industry successfully capitalized on public demand for transparency, taking down substitutes’ snake-oil-style advertising, it also managed to shoot itself in the foot. Not everyone drank coffee, but access to a cheap cuppa by then had become an American birthright. So in 1906, when Arbuckle’s old competitor Sielcken bankrolled the Brazilian government’s scheme to sequester surplus beans, Americans were outraged. Substitutes offering a “healthier,” cheaper alternative gained steam. Under the subsequent barrage of pseudo-scientific attack ads, coffee brands decided the wisest action was swiping at each other’s throats. If one ad claimed that coffee’s tannins or acids caused a health problem, every other brand countered with pseudo-medical bull claiming that that was what happened when you drank any other brand.

Unsurprisingly, this undermined people’s faith in the health benefits of coffee. So, after Postum was dispatched, heads of the industry and editors of top trade publications formed the National Coffee Roasters Association. In 1912, to improve the industry’s brewing standards, they charged inventor/researcher/entrepreneur and future chairman Edward Aborn with conducting the first study of coffee’s chemical composition. They resigned the whimsical ad campaigns in favor of more scientific ones — employing crack teams of Mad men who used psychological research to figure out how best to target customers, says Pendergrast.

Brands that resisted the new scientific style of advertising, including the once-dominant Arbuckle, quickly crumbled. And on the eve of the Jazz Age, the NCRA approached Prescott for help, raising their glass on a new coffee era.

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