The Rise and Fall of the Electric Percolator – Part 2

Part 1  –  Part 2  –  Part 3  –  Part 4

As the cost of electrical service declined throughout the 1930s, an increasing number of middle- and even lower-class families could afford to wire their homes. Indeed, 80 percent of Americans had electricity by 1941.[1] Even so, for those living in rural areas the electrification rate hovered at only 11.6 percent in 1935. That figure would rise rapidly, though, due to the efforts of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), which was created in 1935 as an integral part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives. The REA was so successful that by 1955 fully 93.5 percent of rural residents had electrical service.[2] Kitchen appliances had gone from luxury items to necessities in a very short period of time.

So quick was the adoption that by the 1950s, young women in home economics courses were being advised by the author of Young Homemakers’ Equipment Guide, Louise Peet, that “you can’t ‘keep house’ without a certain amount of basic equipment.”[3] In preparing young coeds for their lives as wives, Peet challenged them to make wise decisions in their choice of electric appliances and to be mindful of manufacturer’s instructions, because “When a girl marries, relatives and friends give [her an] electric coffee maker, toaster, grill-waffle combination, frypan, egg cooker, and corn popper,” with the implication being that new wives had better be prepared, “so those first weeks of adventure will be cheerful instead of tearful.”[4]

The Aluminum Cooking Utensil Co., “Young Married’s Dream,” advertisement.
The Aluminum Cooking Utensil Co., “Young Married’s Dream,” advertisement.

Despite their former pedigrees as luxury items, electric percolators had become altogether commonplace by the 1950s. They were effective and efficient in the task they had been engineered to perform. But there were plenty of other ways to brew a pot of coffee – some good, some bad, and for some baldly sexist husbands, the joy of every wife’s morning, as the author of an article published in 1957 contends:

“The making of good coffee calls for a high degree of skill in the maker, also for certain gifts such as a keen olfactory sense, a capacity for taking infinite pains, and something of the artist’s touch. A really skilled coffee maker deserves to be honored as an artist in her own right. In addition, she possesses one of the first qualifications of a successful and happy wife and mother. Nothing launches a breadwinner on his working day better than one or more cups of fragrant, steaming coffee, skillfully prepared and fresh from the percolator, coffee pot, or what have you.”[5]

Coffee, however artfully prepared, had been exalted and consumed the world over for hundreds of years before anyone ever dreamed of harnessing the power of electricity to produce the perfect cup — let alone an Eisenhower-era housewife. So the question arises…why coffee?

What is it about this aromatic beverage that has inspired such invention in its production and devotion to its consumption? Clearly, people enjoy its taste and stimulative properties, but more than that, there is something of a curious, ritualistic, and even spiritual quality associated with its drinking. The last four lines of an ode to coffee, entitled The Beverage, by William H. Ukers, provides a glimpse into the enduring allure of coffee:enchanting

“The enchanting perfume that a zephyr has brought
Favored liquid which fills all my soul with delight
The delicious libation we pour on the altar of friendship
This invigorating drink which drives sad care from the heart.”[6]

Ukers handles the prose of coffee as well, informing readers of his 1922 tome on the subject that the drink originated in ancient Persia and Egypt, then crossed into Turkey. Coffee was once prepared quite differently, with the “berries” being roasted, ground to a powder, mixed with boiling water, and consumed whole. More familiar methods emerged in the 15th century, as perforated earthenware or metal skimming and roasting plates came into use in Turkey, as did the coffee mill and what was perhaps the first percolator, “the original Turkish coffee boiler of metal.” Like tea before it and cocoa to follow, this stimulating extract was destined for a greater stage. Venetian traders introduced coffee to Europe in 1615, and from Italy it spread rapidly through the continent and across the Atlantic.[7]

Coffee drinking lends itself well to social occasions and can readily become an activity unto itself, even an habituated one. In this regard, coffee can be seen to parallel the consumption of alcoholic beverages, though to more sobering effect. And like their ale house cousins, early coffee drinking establishments served an important public function. They were taverns of a different order, pubs without spirits, and were conspicuously established as temperance institutions. Once introduced they proliferated quickly. For example, London’s first coffee house opened in 1652. By 1683 their number had increased to approximately 2,000.[8] In a modern-day comparison, the total number of Starbucks stores numbered 272 in 1993. Twenty years later, the total had risen to 17,651 worldwide, with 13,279 in the U.S. alone.[9] As those figures clearly indicate, there is a good deal of coffee brewing going on, which should not prove too surprising, especially considering that, as one historian observes:

“As wine has never been just wine to the French, so coffee was never simply coffee to Americans. As much sign and circumstance as substance, by the twenties coffee had become the national beverage, and it encompassed a wide range of attitudes about modernity, the good life, and even the nation’s place in the global scheme of things.” [10]

Onward to Part Three!


[1] Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 93-94.

[2] U.S. Department of Agriculture, A Brief History of the Rural Electric and Telephone Program, http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/rd/70th/rea-history.pdf.

[3] Louise J. Peet, Young Homemakers’ Equipment Guide (Ames: Iowa State College Press, 1958), vii.

[4] Peet, 63.

[5] Clifton L. Hall, “What Is Broken by the Coffee Break?” Peabody Journal of Education 35, no. 1 (July 1957): 2-4.

[6] William H. Ukers, All About Coffee (New York, The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1922), xxviii.

[7] Ukers, 725.

[8] Ibid., 73-74.

[9] Starbucks Coffee Company, Starbuck’s Company Timeline,  http://www. starbucks.com/assets/9a6616b98dc64271ac8c910fbee47884.pdf.

[10] Larry Owens, “Engineering the Perfect Cup of Coffee: Samuel Prescott and the Sanitary Vision at MIT,” Technology and Culture 45, no. 4 (October 2004): 795-807.

© 2014 – 2018, David Sprouse. All rights reserved.

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