Coffee is a driving force for Americans. Currently, over half of American adults consume coffee on a daily basis. [1]  At their home, Americans can brew quality pre-roasted mix within minutes. In the past, Americans were also addicted to coffee. The difference is that early Americans needed the drink to survive. Like alcohol, tea, and cider, coffee provided a healthier option to drink due to unsanitary water. People would boil and flavor the water with various types of beverages to make it safe to consume. Evidence of people drinking coffee goes as far back as the late 1600s. [2] Improvements in technology changed the preparation and taste of coffee by allowing coffee brewed at home to become easier to make and tastier.

       Brewing coffee in the past wasn’t as simple as it is today. Until the late 1800s, many families roasted and grinded their own coffee beans, which often led to a burnt taste. Fresh taste was also a concern since air caused the beans to stale quickly. To alleviate the bad taste and other problems due to poor brewing techniques, cookbooks like Mrs. Lee’s Cook’s Own Book called for fish oil and egg yolk to be added to the ground. While this sounds weird to modern standard, it remained a popular way to consume coffee until self-sealing coffee mills came to be. [3]

       In late 1890s, the Norton Bros of Chicago, IL found a way to seal up coffee beans so people didn’t have to use the beans quickly. This technique, known as self-sealing, allowed the beans to stay fresh for a longer period of time than previous coffee mills. [4] Many coffee mills before the self-sealer had a drawer which allowed for easy access to the grounds. The issue was that it allowed exposure to oxygen which caused a stale taste.

Mill, Coffee, 1880-1890, Metal, H: 11 1/8 x W: 9 3/4 x D: 6 1/8. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Arthur Yeomans, N0447.1943a-c. Photograph by Matthew Wagner.

Mill, Coffee, 1880-1890, Metal, H: 11 1/8 x W: 9 3/4 x D: 6 1/8. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Arthur Yeomans, N0447.1943a-c. Photograph by Matthew Wagner.

Mill, Coffee, 1880-1890, Metal, H: 11 1/8 x W: 9 3/4 x D: 6 1/8. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Arthur Yeomans, N0447.1943a-c. Photograph by Matthew Wagner.

Mill, Coffee, 1880-1890, Metal, H: 11 1/8 x W: 9 3/4 x D: 6 1/8. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Arthur Yeomans, N0447.1943a-c. Photograph by Matthew Wagner.

  When self-sealing coffee mills became widespread, people started focusing more on fresher taste. Many self-sealing mills promised that the grounds would be kept fresh. The bottom portion served as an air-tight container that can easily pulled open.It was quite convenient, tasty, and easy to use which pales in comparison of the old complex way to make coffee. People didn’t need to add fish oils and egg yolk for taste since the coffee mill promised fresh taste. Now people could brew fresh tasting coffee without all the hard work.

Mill, Coffee, 1880-1890, Metal, H: 11 1/8 x W: 9 3/4 x D: 6 1/8. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Arthur Yeomans, N0447.1943a-c. Photograph by Matthew Wagner.

Thanks to Norton Bros Self-Sealing Coffee Mills, the way that Americans consumed coffee changed. Instead of having to quickly use the coffee grounds after roasting, people could just leave leftovers in the container for the next time that they wanted to brew coffee. Eventually, this self-sealer led to vacuum seal which allowed people to buy coffee grounds at the store. So today, people have the technology that a self-sealing mill made possible, leading to brewing fresh coffee quickly and easily.
Matt Wagner
Cooperstown Graduate Program 2016

[1] Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health, “Coffee by the Numbers,” http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/multimedia-article/facts/ Accessed 10/5/2015.

[2] Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald, “America’s Founding Food The Story of New England Cooking,” (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, The University of North Carolina Press, 2004) 270

[3] Mark Pendergrast, “Uncommon Grounds The History of Coffee and How it Transformed our World,” Revised  Ed (New York City: New York, Basic Books, 2010) 118

[4] Stavely and Fitzgerald 273

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