The Rise and Fall of the Electric Percolator – Part 1

Part 1  –  Part 2  –  Part 3  –  Part 4

The gurgling sound of electric percolators were once synonymous with coffee brewing. Whether dressed in colorful enamel or chromed to a mirrored luster these tapered vessels of gleaming stainless steel and rugged aluminum reigned supreme in the American kitchen for decades, until their rapid demise in the mid-1970s. Electric percolators fell victim to the automatic drip coffee-maker in a marketplace revolution that swept aside the timeworn rhythms of percolated brewing for the regulated trickling of heated water through a plastic body and paper filter. Coffee brewing methods have proliferated since, with everything from the French press to the newest single-cup coffee-makers vying for dominance in the seemingly boundless coffee machine market. Yet for all the gadgetry that has come and gone, the electric percolator still has its devotees. Well-worn models are bought and sold on the Internet and sought out in weekend yard sales. Companies such as Farberware, West Bend, Cuisinart, Hamilton Beach, and Presto continue to produce new models and replacement parts for their line of percolating coffee-makers.

Gunnar and Sherry, “The Sapp Bros. Coffee Pot Water Tower of Omaha, Nebraska.”

Percolators have doubtless had a successful run. Indeed, for much of the twentieth century the painted silhouette of a coffee percolator was commonly used to lure passing motorists into diners across the nation. While the halcyon days for this familiar kitchen appliance have long since passed, its enduring popularity among a certain subset of coffee drinkers has prolonged the percolator’s longevity. Requiring only ground coffee beans, water, and electrical current to operate, the percolator is the very embodiment of simplicity and economy. For percolator devotees, though, perhaps its most important quality is its ability to brew a smooth cup of coffee.

With such a proliferation of coffee-making machines as are available today, one might assume that the battle over the best means of coffee preparation is more of a 21st century preoccupation. Yet coffee enthusiasts have wrangled over the subject since at least 1891, as evidenced by an article in The British Medical Journal in which the author, “studied very carefully the modes of making coffee in France and Austria, and purchased and tested a great variety of machines. In some of them the coffee is boiled, pure and simple; in others it is infused by percolation; in others it is infused…under steam pressure, or under strong atmospheric pressure.” This particular 19th century coffee aficionado, after having enlisted “the aid of accomplished coffee tasters,” ultimately concluded that the results of his “toilsome series of experiments” indicated that coffee can be made “with equal success” no matter how it is brewed, so long as it is not burned or diluted with too much water.[1] It would appear that, for coffee drinkers of the late Victorian era, the method of coffee brewing mattered less than the ratio of beans to water and the presence of an attentive preparer. Successful coffee brewing, then, hinged on a consistency of temperature, time, and measure — all qualities that could be readily engineered into electrical appliances.

While electric coffee-makers were available at the turn of the 20th  century, appliances remained rather clumsy to operate. Dedicated electric outlets and plugs had not yet been developed, which meant that early appliances had to be screwed into light sockets. As one historian frames it, “One might plug in an iron at the cost of being left in the dark. Screwing in the plug necessarily twists the cord. And, if an iron is accidentally dropped, the cord will have to separate from either the plug or the appliance and a short circuit or shock is likely.”[2] Nevertheless, dangling, twisted electric cords were merely a minor inconvenience as compared to the dazzling array of labor-saving devices that were becoming available. An article from a 1904 issue of Scientific American lauds the development of such new appliances: “Electric griddles, cake irons, toasters, cereal boilers, and coffee urns are but a few of the many devices which are now finding their way into homes equipped with electricity. …and besides their cheapness, their cleanliness, and their handiness, they have the additional quality of absolute safety.”[3] Although these new devices offered many advantages, the “absolute safety” of electric coffee-makers was likely a bit of an exaggeration. For example, an early instructive article on the use of “electric devices” cautions that “an electric should be turned off as soon as its work has been finished. …leaving the current turned into a percolator after the coffee has been drawn out…invites a speedy burnout.”[4] The article also reminds readers that “when turning on or off the smaller devices, such as toasters or percolators” to use the switch, if there is one, and that electrical cords should be taped wherever the insulation is worn off to avoid the risk of shock or fire.[5]

1908 marked the introduction of the modern electric percolator.  Developed and sold by Universal (GE), the coffee-maker was the first to employ the “cold water” pump method of brewing. While the operation of a percolator still required a degree of vigilance, it took far less time to brew. No longer did an entire pot of water need to be heated before the brewing could start; instead, explains business historian Kathryn Harrigan, “a small well, or recess, in the base of the pot, around which the heating element was brazed, concentrated heat on a small quantity of water. This started the perking action in only two or three minutes.”[6] It was faster but still only marked a minor tweaking of an existing design, because all percolators, whether electric, stovetop, or campfire, operate in essentially the same manner. Heated water is driven upward, typically through a hollow tube, to the top of the percolator, where the near-boiling water cascades downward through a basket of coffee grounds to emerge from a web of perforations. The water, now infused with coffee, rains down into the pot from the suspended basket, whereupon the process repeats until the mixture has reached its desired strength.

Westinghouse, “Better Coffee From the Same Can,” advertisement, Good Housekeeping, August, 1916, 31.

Although the “cold water” percolator’s speedier brewing cycle helped quicken the coffee-maker’s growing acceptance, the electric percolator was not yet perfected. Not until S. W. Farber Inc., developed the rotating disc fuse in the 1920s, which prevented spontaneous overheating, did the electric percolator become an attractive alternative to the stovetop model.[7] But while electric coffee-makers were much safer to operate by the end of the 1920s, they were still relatively expensive. Considering that the typical American family earned less than $2,000 a year in 1928, a Hotpoint electric percolator, advertised for $12.50 in 1927, must have been considered an extravagant way to spend two days worth of hard-earned pay.[8] The electricity to power such small appliances as percolators and toasters was also pricey. That is, if one were fortunate enough to have electrical service. In light of those realities, consumer appliance advertising of the 1920s and ‘30s was aimed at a fairly affluent and typically urban-dwelling segment of the market, with advertisers playing on associations of sophistication in person and lifestyle.[9] As evidenced by a quick perusal of popular magazines of the day, those advertising messages were aimed squarely at women.

For those who could afford to buy into this new lifestyle, the desire to fill one’s home with every conceivable device with a plug on the end was perhaps not so much of a fantasy as an objective. Typically though, there were distinctly gendered motivations underlying their purchases. According to historian Sherrie A. Inness, men could “display their business acumen by demonstrating that they could afford to fill their houses with electric gadgets. …Purchasing electric appliances demonstrated men’s power, prestige, and wealth. Electric appliances [for women] were a highly visible display of the husband’s ability to be a successful breadwinner.”[10] In other words, electricity was still new and had the power to impress. More importantly, other couples noticed.

Onward to Part Two!

[1] “Coffee As It Is Made In England,” The British Medical Journal 2, no. 1611 (Nov. 14, 1891): 1057-58.

[2] Fred E.H. Schroder, “More ‘Small Things Forgotten’: Domestic Electrical Plugs and Receptacles, 1881-1931,” Technology and Culture 27, no. 3 (July 1986): 531.

[3] “Electricity in the Household,” Scientific American XC, no. 12 (March 19, 1904): 232.

[4] Charles Magee Adams, “Fireless Heat: Suggestions That Will Help the Housewife Care for Electric Devices,” American Cookery XXVI (June-July 1921): 687-688.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kathryn Rudie Harrigan, Strategies for Declining Businesses (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1980), 185.

[7] Harrigan, 192.

[8] Sherrie A. Inness, Dinner Roles: American Women and Culinary Culture (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001), 76.

[9] Terrence H. Witkowski, “The American Consumer Home Front During World War II,” Advances in Consumer Research 25, (1998): 568-573.

[10] Inness, 83.

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


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