The “coffee break” became an American institution during World War II, when older and inexperienced workers were pushed into the workforce and needed breaks for refreshment. The “coffee break” usually occurs in the morning and often also in the afternoon, for fifteen minutes or half an hour, and the “coffee break” term can be used for the consumption of tea and other beverages besides coffee (plus snacks).
In the 1920s and 1930s, South American coffee interests had been promoting a “coffee hour,” but without much success. A prior practice in the 1930 and 1940s had been the “coffee sneak”—an informal sneaking away from the workplace to quickly buy a cup of coffee from a nearby vendor.
The term “coffee break” is cited in print by at least 1949. In the 1950s, the Pan-American Coffee Bureau (based in New York City) promoted the coffee break in newspaper and magazine advertisements, although the coffee break had already been an institution before the ads began.
Wikipedia: Coffee break
A coffee break is a daily social gathering for a snack and short downtime practiced by employees in business and industry. The term was popularized in America and invented by the Pan American Coffee Bureau in 1952, but has become universal in the modern world and is employed whether or not participants are actually drinking coffee. It corresponds with the Commonwealth terms elevenses, morning tea, tea break, or even just tea. However the term coffee break is increasingly used even in those countries. An afternoon coffee break, or afternoon tea, is sometimes had as well.
The coffee break is said to have originated in the late 1800s in Stoughton, Wisconsin by the wives of Norwegian immigrants. The city celebrates this every year with the Stoughton Coffee Break Festival. However, the term was popularized by a Pan-American Coffee Bureau ad campaign which urged consumers, “Give yourself a Coffee-Break — and Get What Coffee Gives to You.”
Coffee breaks usually last 10–20 minutes and frequently occur at the end of the first third of the work shift. In some companies and some civil service, the coffee break may be observed formally at a set hour; in some places a “cart” with hot and cold beverages and cakes, breads and pastries arrives at the same time morning and afternoon, or an employer may contract with an outside caterer for daily service.
The break is often held away from the actual work area in a designated cafeteria, tea room or outdoor area. As well as a chance for sustenance, it is a time for gossip and small talk, or a time to smoke a cigarette (thus the alternate term “smoke break”). It is a chance to wind down slightly and “regroup” for the remaining day’s work. In Australia and New Zealand this break from work, particularly manual work, is also called smoko.
More generally, “coffee break” is used to denote any break from work in any arena; housewives are often portrayed in popular culture as taking a coffee break in their kitchens.
Main Entry: coffee break
: a short period for rest and refreshments
(Oxford English Dictionary)
coffee-break, the interval, usually mid-morning, in an office, etc., when coffee is drunk.
1951 Time 5 Mar. 25/3 Since the war, the *coffee break has been written into union contracts.
1958 L. A. G. STRONG Treason in Egg iii. 59 During the coffee break, Carstairs had ostentatiously kept on the far side of the room from Ellis.
1959 P. H. JOHNSON Humbler Creation xvi. 112 Better have a coffee-break. Then we can get down to it again.
3 April 1921, New York (NY) Times, “Urging Use of Coffee; Means Employed by Brazilian Interests to Increase Trade,” pg. 74:
The campaign, which has already been put into effect includes such movements as the encouragement of coffee drinking as a substitute for alcoholic drinks, the instruction of Americans in the use of coffee as a flavor, the introduction of a coffee hour in factories and the opening of coffee houses.
July 1930, Delicatessen magazine, pg. 22, col. 2:
The Four O’Clock Coffee Hour
(...) The “4 O’Clock Coffee Hour” is the brain-child of Dr. Sebastian Sampaio, Consul General of Brazil, and it has been enthusiastically mothered by the Consuls General of all the other coffee-producing countries of Latin America. Its inauguration was celebrated at a dinner in New York attended by thirteen consular officials and the executives of many corporations and companies interested in South and Central America, and it has also started in
New Orleans and Los Angeles.
The “Coffee Hour” was first adopted by the American Foreign Power Company, a subsidiary of the Electric Bond and Share Company, and was initiated at the Company’s offices at 2 Rector Street, New York, recently. All officials and employees were invited to assemble at 4 o’clock in the dining room of the Company’s office building, the announcement reading: “A demi-tasse will be served to those who desire to take this refreshing and
stimulating beverage.” Since that day hot coffee has been served every afternoon to all employees who can spare three or four minutes to renew their energies for the final crowded hour of the business day.
29 May 1947, Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), “The Ladies” (comic) by Dorothy Bond, pg. 11, col. 1:
...and the MINUTE I heard through the grapevine that the boss is going out at 2:30 for a treatment for a new bald spot I knew it changed our plans! We can’t ask for a raise today and instead of our usual quick coffee sneak we can now wait until 3 for a long, leisurely cup!
26 March 1948, Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), “The Ladies” (comic) by Dorothy Bond, pg. 16, col. 3:
SAY-Y-Y-Y-Y! What GOES here!!! No afternoon coffee sneak today?
30 August 1949, Waukesha (WI) Daily Freeman, pg. 1, col. 4 photo caption:
COFFEE BREAK—Cong. Glenn Davis, home for a month from his duties in Washington, swaps coffee chit-chat with Hoeveler Drug store waitress Shirley Young.
24 November 1949, Emporia (KS) Weekly Gazette, “Coffee Cup Tempest,” pg. 2, col. 5:
Emporia’s version of a teapot tempest raging over a coffee cup is still sizzling as the nickel vs. dime controversy moves into its second week. From it comes that chatty sort of news that affects almost everyone who works downtown. The mid-morning cup of coffee is an institution dating back to the days of the huge, gleaming coffee urns which occupied places of great respect behind restaurant counters.
For years, downtowners have bought more than the soothing, wake-up beverage with their nickels. The “coffee break” afforded them the chance to swap big stories and small talk with friends. It was a bright spot during the morning, and morning always is a time when bright spots are needed to get the day started right.
8 December 1949, Tri-City Herald (Pasco, WA), “Another Of Last Defenders Of Five-Cent Cup Of Coffee Surrenders To Rising Price” by Martin Heerwald, pg. 16, cols. 4-5:
Apparently the 15 minute mid-morning coffee break has become a stronger institution than the five cent cup.
Hundreds of stenographers, clerical workers, secretaries, state officials and their assistants filed as usual past the cafeteria serving counter this morning and shelled out the two extra pennies.
5 July 1950, Oakland (CA) Tribune, pg.D45, cols. 3-4 ad:
Solve your coffee break problems
(Coffee cabinet ad --ed.)
13 July 1950, Monessen (PA) Daily Independent, pg. 12, col. 6:
“Let’s break, Babe!”
That’s nomenclature according to NOMA, the National Office Management Association.
The break, better known as coffee break or snack period, has become an established routine for office workers.
Almost a thousand companies of varying size, in a score of different fields, have been surveyed by the Association. Three companies out of four permit employees to obtain between-meal refreshment.
The Coffee Hour
Monday, Mar. 05, 1951
MANNERS & MORALS
Some employers flung themselves hopelessly against the moving horde. Others, already defeated, just watched the tide, making mental notes. But there was nothing to be done about it. Every morning, in every city in the U.S., the bosses watched glumly as the last stenographer disappeared down the hall with a departing flirt of her skirt, purse clutched firmly in one hand, cigarettes and matches in the other.
The morning coffee break had become as deeply entrenched in U.S. custom as the seventh-inning stretch and the banana split. Clerks, secretaries, junior executives and salesgirls had come to consider it an inalienable right of the American office worker. In the face of that terrible, soft insistence, the fuming employer could only take his finger off the unanswered buzzer, jam on his hat, and follow along after the crowd to the coffee shop. As a matter of fact, he kind of liked a cup himself.
Chuckling Percolators. “The war, the war, it is all because of the war,” growled one employer. In the drum-tight labor market of World War II, when trained workers were hard to find and hard to keep, the wise boss had indulged such little liberties. Later, the men came back from the wardrooms and mess halls of the armed forces, where the percolators chuckle day & night, and gave the custom new impetus.
7 March 1951, Lowell (MA) Sun, pg. 20, col. 1:
At 10 a. m., at a Central street restaurant, “The Coffee Hour”—a break of a few minutes from the office routine for a coffee pick-me-up by bank executives, office lovelies, store clerks, etc. The Coffee Hour has become a permanent fixture of Lowell office life.
22 March 1951, Billings (MT) Herald, pg. 3, col. 3:
Now, here’s a fact, sure as you’re born,
I’m racked with thirst, come ten each morn;
I’m a guy who simply has to make
That blest mid-morning coffee break.
Again at three, as things get slack,
To that packed fountain I hike back;
Once more my craving thirst I slake
At that grand respite, coffee break.
There’s come that time, beyond a doubt,
When I’ll longer be about;
And if, in neither realms I bake
Will Satan give a coffee break?
3 August 1951, Connellsville (PA) Daily Courier, “Claims Government Workers U.S. Leaders As Coffee Drinkers” by Harman W. Nichols, pg. 15, col. 7:
WASHINGTON, Aug. 3—There are a couple of reasons Government workers are national leaders in the business of coffee drinking.
1. It’s a wonderful way to kill a little time and chit-chat with their fellow workers.
2. As everybody working for Uncle Sam will tell you, a “coffee break” gives a man the kind of a lift that makes him rush back to his desk and dig into his work pile with new zest.
The Pan-American Coffee Bureau of New York has made a cup-to-cup survey and finds that about 225,000 cups are bought daily by Government workers in eating places which operate in Federal agencies. These take in most Government buildings, including the Capitol and the Supreme Court building. But the total doesn’t include what the workers drink at home and in public eating spots.
The sprawling Pentagon leads the parade. Some 25,000 cups of java are consumed there daily in the 15 snack bars and dining rooms. The capitol ranks second with about 16,000 cups a day by the lawmakers, members of their staff and others.
All told about 5,000 pounds of coffee are used daily in Federal agencies.
The “coffee breaks” are a tradition in Washington. For a while, there was some criticism of this practice, but some personnel chiefs claim that the “breaks” cut down on inter-office visits and actually save work time.
30 January 1952, Portsmouth (OH) Tribune, “U.S. Drinking Habit Watched By Idea Men” by Sam Dawson, pg. 11, col. 1:
The coffee break is distinct from the coffee sneak, which has long been popular. The sneak is the more or less winked-at custom of running over to the soda fountain across the street. The break is the formal time-out at the desk or within ear-shot of the phone.
September 1955, American Restaurant Magazine, pg. 145:
“The ‘Coffee-break’ stops customers for our highway restaurant!”
Promote the “Coffee-break"--to promote your own profits.
PAN-AMERICAN COFFEE BURUEAU, 120 WALL STREET, NEW YORK 5 N. Y.
The Unpaid Coffee Break
Monday, Oct. 10, 1955
When Denver Tiemaker Phil Greinetz lost his best weavers to the armed forces during World War II, he hired elderly women for his little (20 looms) Los Wigwam Weavers. They were fine workers, but tired easily. At their suggestion, he experimented with 15-minute rest breaks morning and afternoon and provided coffee. When Greinetz found that workers who took the break produced more ties, he made it compulsory. But since wages were frozen, he could not pay his employees for the rest time. The employees did not care; as production soared, earnings on piece rates went up to $1.02 hourly.
Everything was fine until a U.S. Department of Labor wage-hour inspector turned up at the little shop last summer. When he found out about the coffee breaks, he said that Greinetz would have to pay for the time. Said the inspector: “As soon as they step in your shop, they are on your time.” Greinetz refused to pay, so the Labor Department took the question to Colorado’s U.S. District Court.
Last week Greinetz won his point.
American Dialect Society list
Date: Wed, 9 Aug 2000 10:41:49 -0400 (EDT)
To: [log in to unmask]
From: “Carrolyn A. Davis”
Subject: “Coffee Break” in a union contract
Dear Barry: I spoke with Douglas Fraser, UAW Retired President, and he said the issue was never a part of the contract prior to 1964. Prior to 1964, “by practice workers always had 12 min. in the morning and 12 min. in the afternoon to break for whatever reason”. After the 1964 contractual agreements the 48 min a day rule was written in; 24 min. in the morning and 24 min. in the afternoon. He also offered that there were two ways to initiate these breaks (coffee or whatever); and that being “tag relief” or “shutdown” - where the line was entirely shut down for everyone to break. However, the companies started seeing and experiencing problems with the “shutdown” format, so in order to assure quality control, the “tag relief” became the dominant form of “break.” I hope this answers your query. If we can be of any further assistance, let us know.
Carrolyn A. Davis
Walter P. Reuther Library
Wayne State University
5401 Cass Ave. - Detroit, MI 48202
313-577-4024 - Fax: 313-577-4300