A red Kuerig with a black mug and a man with a tattooed arm reaching into a box of Medium Roast K-Cups.

History of the Coffee Break

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“Coffee should be strong as death, and sweet as love”—that’s according to an old Turkish proverb.

For most humans, we can’t wait to enjoy that morning (afternoon and/or evening) cup of our favorite brew. It’s become a staple of our daily rituals right up there with baseball and apple pie! In fact, there’s an estimated 150 million daily coffee drinkers out there that would wholeheartedly agree!

But enjoying our coffee isn’t just a practice done in the privacy of our own homes. In recent history, it’s become part of our workdays too and just might be the best part of our day—excluding lunch, of course.

What is it? The coffee break. 

Coffee breaks today are so much a part of our workday lives (at the office or while working from home) that it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. But what is the origin of this workplace tradition? You better have a coffee in hand and be ready for that break—the answer to the question is quite highly debated.

Stoughton, Wisconsin (of all places), lays claim to the birthplace of the coffee break, dating back to the late 19th century when Norwegian immigrants came to the area for work in T. G. Mandt’s wagon factory. While men stayed busy building wagons, tobacco warehouse owners needed more help harvesting the tobacco. So local Norwegian wives were asked to help. The women agreed to assist, but only if they would be allowed to head home and tend to household duties each morning and afternoon. This also meant a cup of coffee would be hot and waiting for them on the stove. Their conditions were met, and so the coffee break was allegedly born.

 A few years later in the early 1900s, a company in Buffalo, New York, also laid claim to the coffee break origin. New York’s Barcolo Manufacturing, a metal products manufacturer, offered employees a break during the day and free coffee too. The special coffee break benefit aimed to give workers a chance to relax over a cup of joe and ultimately amp up caffeine AND productivity.

But the most historically (coffee) grounded origin of the coffee break occurred during World War II when skilled weavers at a small Denver tiemaker company, Los Wigwam Weavers, were called to war. After replacing the positions with nondrafted men who were frankly not very good, owner Phil Greinetz brought on older women instead. Although much more skilled workers than the men, they tired easily.

The women suggested that Greinetz allow them two times during the day to rest and have a cup of coffee or tea. Greinetz listened and tried out 10-minute rest breaks in the morning and the afternoon—and provided coffee during the breaks.  As a result, production increased and company earnings did too! 

The term “coffee break” didn’t actually become popular until 1952 through a Pan-American Coffee Bureau ad campaign. The slogan read: “Give yourself a Coffee-Break—and Get What Coffee Gives to You.” Isn’t it funny to learn that coffee and caffeine helped give shape to the modern workday?

No matter where it originated, a coffee break is a great opportunity to take some time off work and enjoy a mug of your favorite caffeinated beverage—and some good conversation every once in a while. So drink up! It may just be the secret to working happy, increasing productivity and relieving stress on the job.