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The Very Capitalist History of the American Coffee Break

The best part of waking up... is getting energized for a long day’s work

Two hands making latte art inside of a cup. Wonho Frank Lee

Today, we think of the coffee break, ideally, as a respite from our work day. It’s a chance to slow down, breathe in the scent of coffee beans, and enjoy a comforting hot or cold beverage that will give you the boost needed to make it until your 5 p.m. — or more realistically, 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. — clock-out time. If you’re working the graveyard shift, that cup of joe might be an even bigger necessity: It’s the fuel needed to keep you alert when everybody else is sleeping.

We view coffee as a relaxing escape or energy hack because we’re programmed to experience it that way.

As noted journalist and caffeine fiend Michael Pollan says on this week’s episode of Gastropod, “Capitalism and caffeine are hand in hand. If you want any proof of that, just look at the institution of the coffee break... Your employer not only gives you a free drug at the at the workplace, but gives you a place and time in which to enjoy it twice a day, in most places. Why would employers do that if it didn’t offer them more benefit than cost? And clearly it does. They get more work out of people.”

As it turns out, what we consider a “coffee break” in the United States is actually explicitly tied to a 1955 court case, the United States vs. Phil Greinetz of Los Wigwam Weavers.

Greinetz owned the Denver tie factory Los Wigwam Weavers and, after World War II, struggled to find staff up for the surprisingly arduous task of tie making. To encourage productivity, he introduced mandatory coffee breaks so that workers would have the energy to make it through their shifts fully alert. One problem, though. Like bad bosses throughout history, Greinetz didn’t want to pay his employees for the time he demanded they spend drinking coffee. Eventually, the U.S. Department of Labor became involved, with the court ultimately deciding, in a rare win for the working person, that employers had to cover coffee breaks since the business was positively affected by employees being jacked up on caffeine.

So what does this mean, sheeple? That we’re all just buzzed-up laborers who’ve ritualized our own daily drugging? Well... yes. But does that make your flat white feel any less necessary?


Listen to this week’s Gastropod to learn more about the history of coffee, from its use in Islamic prayer in the Middle East, its role in the Age of Enlightenment and U.S. immigration, and how it became the quintessential American beverage.

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