Friday, September 30

A Brief History of a Coffee Break at Work

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Taking a break at work and grabbing a cup of coffee is what we usually take for granted. But has this ritual always been guaranteed to employees and when has this tradition started? Have you ever asked yourself who invented the coffee break?

While you enjoy drinking coffee at work, know that the origin of the coffee at the office evolved from the eight-hour workday. Thanks to the factory unions, a break at work during a shift became mandatory. While taking time off from their job, workers used that time to refuel by drinking coffee. Nevertheless, there are several different theories about who and when first started this habit.

Working moms and labour unions

One theory claims that the coffee break originated in Wisconsin in the 19th century. It all started when working moms started to take mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks to take care of their children. So, it is believed that the wives of the Norwegian immigrants are those who invented the coffee break. Stoughton Coffee Break Festival is still being celebrated every August as the reminiscence of Coffee street. In this street, women were working in tobacco firms and could easily check on the kids at home. During that break, they had the opportunity to do the chores and grab a cup of coffee.

Speaking of the break at work, the labour movements of the early 20th century were the ones to thank for. In 1951, Time magazine noted that since World War Two the coffee break has been written into union contracts.

coffee break

Drinking coffee at work and behavioural psychology

Would you crave coffee if you see people drink it in a commercial? It has actually worked very well in the past and still is. What does behavioural psychology have to do with making coffee at work? The behaviourist approach explains that people could be trained to react in predictable ways. This is called conditioning and it’s done through repetitive actions. John B. Watson was one of the psychologists that used the principles of classical conditioning in his study of human emotions. Watson’s ideas were influenced by the famous experiment known as Pavlov’s Dog. Moreover, Watson believed the same principles could be extended to the conditioning of human emotions.

Eventually, Watson was invited to work on an advertisement for Maxwell House coffee and he incorporated the idea of a coffee break in his commercial. The rest is history. This company became the most famous brand of coffee and its product was the most purchased coffee in the USA. 

Coffee culture after WW2

During World War Two, coffee rationing took place in the United States. Rationing made coffee available to all citizens equally, giving priority to the needs of the military. Even though the Americans were supportive of their troops, the coffee rationing was a very unpopular measure.

So, after the war, the quality of the coffee was improved and the coffee culture was blossoming. It was the time when the first coffee vending machines started popping up in offices. There was a campaign in 1952 that invited the consumers with the slogan: “Give yourself a coffee break – and get what coffee gives to you.” 

A coffee history timeline

If you would like to get the wider picture, you should know that coffee history and the timeline of coffee culture is full of interesting facts. How did drinking coffee on a daily basis become a cultural norm? Before 1000 A.D. members of the Galla used berries from the coffee tree, ground them and mixed them with animal fat to boost energy during the day. Arab traders boiled coffee plants and called that drink kahwa in 1000 A.D. Ottoman Turks brought coffee to Constantinople in the 16th century. The governor of Mecca was even executed for trying to ban coffee in 1511. Pope Clement VIII baptized it despite his advisers’ attempts to persuade him that it was the drink of the infidels. 

In the second part of the 17th century, the first coffee shops opened in Italy, England and France. In the early 1900s, coffee breaks became official. At the beginning of the 20th century afternoon coffee became a daily ritual in Germany. Workers movements played a major role in incorporating a coffee break into our society’s habits. They began the series of strikes and the concept of having a moment to rest and socialize finally became accepted.

Wrapping up

Apart from workers’ rights activists, the popularisation of a coffee break due to advertising had its part. Another theory tracks the story of NY companies that found a way for their workers to be more productive. Namely, those firms argue they were the first ones to offer the benefit of a coffee break to their employees. Despite initial resistance, it was realised that 10-20 minutes of a coffee break was not just a waste of time. A coffee break was also an occasion when employees could strengthen their professional relationships and solidarity. 

Today you can hardly find a desk without a half-full coffee mug on it. Making and drinking coffee at work became part of the office culture. Generally speaking, the phrase “coffee break” now denotes any break from work.


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