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History of Coffee in America

Instructor: Cirrelia Thaxton

Cirrelia is an educator who has taught K-12 and has a doctorate in education.

Coffee is a popular beverage, but it has not always been that way. Americans had to develop a taste for coffee after years of tea drinking. Follow the history of coffee drinking in America in this lesson.

Coffee in the New World

In 1607, Captain John Smith, founder of the Colony of Virginia, introduced coffee to other settlers of Jamestown. Because early Americans preferred tea, hard cider, and ale, they were slow to accept coffee-drinking habits. In 1670, Dorothy Jones became the first person to receive a license to sell coffee in early Boston. Her license was the Massachusetts Colony's first written reference to coffee, although she sold chocolate as well.

Revolutionary Era

By the mid-1700's, many taverns in the Colonies doubled as coffeehouses, but tea was still the drink of choice. This all changed following the Boston Tea Party in 1773 when angry colonists protesting the high British tea tax dumped a shipment of tea into the Boston Harbor. From that moment on, drinking tea was deemed unpatriotic and drinking coffee became the new favorite beverage.

Coffee Grower durtng the 18th Century
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The American people embraced coffee drinking from the time they got up in the morning until the evening when they prepared for a night's rest. During the American Revolution, the coffee's popularity persisted. President George Washington was an importer of coffee beans while his wife, Martha, perfected the coffee-brewing process. Subsequently, in an 1824 letter to a friend, Thomas Jefferson, the nation's third President, was noted for saying that coffee would become the 'beverage of the civilized world.'

Westward Expansion and Civil War

As America grew during the mid-1800's, cowboys, frontiersmen, and settlers heading out West carried on the coffee-drinking traditions of the East. By boiling coffee in open pots over campfires, these adventurous Americans enjoyed the benefits of caffeine and traveled westward in pursuit of a new way of life.

During the Civil War (1861-1865), coffee was used to lift the morale of the soldiers. Men in both the Union and the Confederacy had coffee in their daily rations. Consuming coffee cooked in kettles over open fires helped soldiers maintain alertness during drills, marches, and even battles. As a result, after the war, men continued the habit of drinking coffee, particularly in the morning. Many believe that the Civil War was what truly caused coffee to be considered America's beverage.

Great Depression and World Wars

By the turn of the century, more and more Americans were drinking coffee than ever before. Coffee companies were creating varieties of brands to market and sell. Companies, like Maxwell House, became familiar names in communities across the country. President Theodore Roosevelt even endorsed Maxwell House coffee, declaring it was 'Good to the last drop!' By 1917 and the start of World War I, American soldiers were drinking coffee to maintain mental awareness and sustain their motivation on the battlefield. It's estimated that U.S. soldiers consumed thousands of pounds of the beverage per day. Due to the need to make coffee easily in the field, companies had to develop instant coffee brands that could be prepared quickly by adding water.

Ad for Decaffeinated Coffee Drinkers of the 1930s
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While the Great Depression was raging in the 1930's, people stretched a dollar to keep coffee in their homes. Soup kitchens sprang up in neighborhoods to aid unemployed workers in need of food and drink. These soup kitchens served free coffee and doughnuts and the pairing these two items became another American tradition. In the wake of World War II, the U.S. Government began to regulate coffee consumption among Americans at home so that soldiers abroad would always have their cups-of-joe. By 1942, there was a nationwide coffee rationing effort in full force. For every five weeks, Americans were allowed only one pound of coffee.

Gourmet Coffee Craze

After World War II, men's coffee drinking habits also returned home with them. During the 1950's television networks barraged Americans with commercials, encouraging people to include coffee in their morning routines. The quintessential 'coffee break' became a time to rejuvenate the senses with a cup of coffee for working Americans. With the invention of the electric drip coffeemaker came less toil and more ease of brewing at home and in the office. For millions of Americans who were on-the-go, roadside coffeehouses and diners continued to be popular spots to get a cup of coffee.

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