One idyllic legend has it that in the 9th century, Ethiopian goatherd Kaldi happened upon the coffee tree when he saw his goats grew excited after nibbling some of its beans. Although this story is probably a fiction, I'm sure all of us coffee lovers out there can relate to Kaldi's goats: the aroma, the taste, the feel: it's a full-body experience. Since then, coffee has actually become the world's most popular drink besides water. Not only has the Ethiopian gem delighted most tongues it touches, but this drink is also behind many of the world's most historic moments. If not for coffee, the North may have lost the Civil War, the advertising business might be less outrageous, and American Idol might never have come into being. Don't believe me? Take a taste of this.
Though nowadays skeptics say that coffee can actually inhibit creativity, this certainly was not the case for some of the most inventive minds of centuries past. In fact, so many great artists were actually fueled by the energizing effects of coffee that it's hard to imagine them producing their greatest works without it.
Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach wrote an entire musical piece, now considered a comic masterwork, loosely translated to "Coffee Contata" that poked fun at coffee addicts and their jittery antics. Ludwig van Beethoven, arguably the greatest composer of all time, demanded his morning cup of Joe be made with precisely 66 beans. Coffee was a staple in Renaissance woman Maya Angelou's diet and daily routine. French writer Honore de Balzac, the influential short story writer, drank almost as many as 50 cups of black coffee a day. And this was before the days of Pepto Bismal.
Booze used to be more popular — and safer — to drink than water in Ye Olde England; that's no urban legend. Beer soup in the morning was a favorite among all classes. Many hardworking laborers were also hard drinkers, and they would spend their earnings as fast as they would pee away their breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.
That is, until coffee hit the scene in the 17th century, and one craze got swapped for another. Mark Pendergrast, in his book Uncommon Grounds, finds one newspaper that remarked, "coffee-drinking hath caused a great sobriety among the nations," as apprentices, clerks, and other workers began enthusiastically substituting caffeine for booze. Who knows how long it would have taken England to dry out if not for coffee?
If you live in America, you may not have heard of Lloyd's of London. The three-centuries old Lloyd's "specialist" market has a reputation for insuring some of the oddest, most extraordinary, and most uncommon stuff. Like, for instance, food critic Egon Ronay's taste buds, which in 1957 Lloyd's insured for $400,000.
Considering the insurance market got its start in a British coffeehouse owned and operated by Edward Lloyd, the company is no stranger to taste buds. Had it not been for the rich taste of his caffeinated product, Eddy might not have had such luck enticing seafarers and marine merchants to do business with him. But he did, and now Lloyd's is one of the premiere insurance markets of the world.
Prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams and Paul Revere were known to frequent Boston's Green Dragon coffeehouse-tavern and discuss their dreams for democracy in secret. Statesman Daniel Webster called the coffee joint the "headquarter of the Revolution," which is more than you can say about your local Starbucks. No doubt the ideas born and conversations had there were in part inspired by the rich, emboldening taste of the patriotic drink.
France had its own headquarters in the Café Procope in Paris, which served the major players of the French Revolution like Robespierre, Danton, and Marat with piping hot cups of coffee. Not only that, but the Storming of the Bastille — attributed with escalating the Revolution — was set off when the imprisoned Marquis de Sade was denied coffee by his supervising guards. As many of us can attest, denying one a cup of much-needed coffee is like denying one basic rights to life and liberty. In turn, Sade shouted out onto the street that wardens were slitting prisoners' throats. The outcry sparked thousands to lay siege to the prison, a symbol of the public's attack of the tyranny of the crown. Let them eat cake, and let them drink coffee!
If you think the steamship, one of the icons of the Industrial Revolution, ran on steam, think again: it actually ran on coffee. Well, it literally ran on steam, but figuratively it was fueled by coffee. When the Industrial revolution began its sprawl across the English countryside in the 18th and 19th centuries, it drove once-farming families to convert to big city lifestyles. Strapped for time and cash, workers of all ages gave up more time-intensive (and more healthful) meals for servings of coffee and bread. Though by no standard was this practice good for the workers — to the contrary, it was detrimental — the lengths and hours it enabled them to work definitely helped bring the Western World into modernity. Now coffee is a mainstay in the workplace break room.
Decades after America acquired a huge swath of land west of the Mississippi River in the Louisiana Purchase, pioneers, homesteaders, and settlers started making their way out there to fulfill their "manifest destiny." By the middle of the 19th century, "Westward ho!" had become the chant, and soothing, delicious coffee became the drink of choice among the pioneers.
Their adventurous fervor was in part sustained by a constant caffeine fix. US Army Lt. William Whiting wrote, "Give [the frontiersmen] coffee and tobacco, and he will endure any privation, suffer any hardship, but let him be without these two necessaries of the woods, and he becomes irresolute and murmuring."
By the time civil war broke out in divided America, coffee had already become a beloved household beverage. So when the Union government blockaded off all of the South's ports and slapped a huge import tax on coffee beans, it hit the Confederates in their hearts, homes and on the battlefield. While the North was buying up and grounding beans at an extraordinary rate, the Southern armies were stuck sucking back subpar coffee substitutes that tasted only a little better than dirt.
We might take coffee for granted today, but during wartime it's absolutely vital. Union soldiers wrote extensively in their diaries about how the drink ignited their warrior passions and plucked up their courage. They brewed it with clean or dirtied water, ground the beans with whatever tools they had, and slurped it down before foraying into battle. This extra spark definitely gave the Union a leg up on the cold-turkeyed, crestfallen, and coffee-less Confederates, and contributed to the North's ultimate victory.
Yes, we know Don Draper and Peggy Olsen drink lots of coffee each episode in their pursuits of advertising greatness. But did you know that mad men and women might not have a job if it weren't for American entrepreneur C.W. Post, who revolutionized advertising while successfully marketing his coffee substitute Postum? And if coffee had never existed, Post might never have had a reason to cook up a knock-off.
In the late 19th century, Post rolled out his non-coffee, caffeine-free taste-a-like Postum, which was supposed to be way healthier for you than the "evil drug" real coffee was. Rather than having salesmen push his product for him, Post spent millions of dollars to spread the word of his concoction. He knocked his competitors at the same time that he won over his customers directly — without having to sway the grocery store middlemen.
Post advertised everywhere he could with messages that used a vernacular to communicate with the people on Main Street. He took scant medical information about coffee and exaggerated it to scare buyers into trying out Postum. Advertisers that followed looked to him as a kind of sorcerer. If you talk about modern marketing, then you're also talking about Post, and about coffee.
The best part of waking up today might indeed be "Folgers in your cup," but for San Franciscans on the morning of April 18, 1906, they were lucky to leave their houses alive. That's because early that morning the Great San Francisco Earthquake struck and convulsed the city, rending earth apart, engulfing it in flames, and causing millions of dollars worth of damage in its wake. Chaos ran rampant through the streets as people fled and buildings toppled. Well, not all buildings...
In fact, coffee titan Folger's five-story factory built near the piers was the only coffee structure to withstand the earthquake's shake. Because of its advantageous spot (over the Bay), US Marines used it as a bulwark, pumping gallons of water from the water source to quench the blaze. There were more than 3,000 casualties and over $400 million of damage accounted for after the earthquake: how much more would there have been if not for the safe haven that coffee built?
On Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the US Stock Market crashed. And it crashed big, sending the country into the Great Depression. But a much lesser known, though still sizable, market crash happened in Brazil just two weeks before Black Tuesday. The kicker? It was the coffee market that crashed.
The crash happened because an enormous quantity of coffee beans, normally stored away by the Brazilian government, was about to let loose on the exchange floor. If the usual suspects (the government, tycoons, shady businessmen) couldn't afford to buy up the excess beans, prices would plummet. And that's just what happened: due to Brazil's inaction and insolvency, they failed to stop coffee from hitting record lows on the market, and a crash ensued. What does this have to do with the New York Stock Exchange crash, you say?
Well, at the time the coffee industry was so interconnected with so many other industries that a ripple effect was bound to happen — as Pendergrast notes. As Brazil's coffee magnates should have seen coming, manipulating prices and artificially messing with supply and demand would and will lead to disastrous consequences. If only Americans had learned their lesson two weeks sooner, they may have avoided the whole debacle.
Do you watch American Idol? The Voice? America's Got Talent? Coca-Cola and Snapple are big sponsors for a lot of modern day, TV talent shows, but these beverage companies can't be credited with starting the trend. No, that was the coffee industry, specifically Chase & Sanborn Coffee way back in 1935. At this point in time, radio was the hot thing, and Standard Brands, working for the Coffee firm at the time, debuted the show Major Bowes Amateur Hour over the airwaves.
The program became an instant hit, and audiences thrilled to be the first to experience as-of-yet unknown talents like Frank Sinatra. If the acts didn't hold the host's attention, he "gave them the gong" and sent them packing — kind of the equivalent of Simon Cowell's squashing criticism. Amateur Hour soon took to television, where it influenced and spawned a whole slew of talent shows just like it. The cool thing is the program started out as one long plug for Chase & Sanborn Coffee. No coffee, no talent shows. Maybe not even reality TV.
13. The Muppets
Jim Henson is known today for founding a whole new genre of movie fit for the whole family: Muppet. But like all game changers, Henson was no stranger to humble beginnings. In fact, the Muppet-master got one of his first national professional gigs making commercials for Wilkins Coffee back in the late 50's. The spots were slightly more violent and less heartfelt than his later work, and featured two puppets — Wilkins who "punished" Wontkins with excessive torture for not enjoying coffee properly. The job solidified Henson's career as a pro muppeteer, and spring boarded him to future success and into more, shall we say, PG material. But, hey, you've got to start somewhere.
What Chase & Sanborn did for talent shows, Maxwell House did for Meet the Press and consequently a whole vertical in news programming. Just about 63 years ago the coffee titan sponsored the weekly, Sunday morning show, and since then it remains a hallmark in American televised journalism. JFK called Meet the Press the 51st state because of its importance, and the program has brought on such notable world leaders as Golda Meir, Hamid Karzai, and Mikhail Gorbachev. If you've ever watched Meet the Press and have left smarter and more globally conscious, you have coffee to thank.
The 1950s and 60s in America were a time of great social upheaval and change. Poets, activists, and philosophers were all growing agitated. But instead of drinking coffee, these beatniks, bohemians, and creatives chose espresso as their libation of liberty. The espresso was a rather new addition to the coffeehouse menu, as it had made its way over from Italy and settled in places like Greenwich Village in NYC, San Francisco, and DC. The coffee shops that served espressos became favorites among poets like Allen Ginsburg, where they would write, sip, and discuss the meaning of life for hours. Though coffee shops may not have born the Beat Generation, they sure defined it: It was there talk of protest, revolution, and civic action was first breathed about, before it went out into the world and took flight.
As you can see, coffee is directly (and indirectly) responsible for a whole lot more than just curing a case of the Mondays. If you look back at many of history's most significant events and cultural achievements, coffee was there. On its journey from Ethiopia, to the Arab world, Europe, and then America and beyond, coffee has made appearances at the theatres of war, on radio and TV, even in the financial markets. Apart from being the preferred drink of the world's citizens, it's also been an effective catalyst for progress. So when you pour that cup of coffee tomorrow morning, ask yourself one question: how will you and your mug change the world?