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For American coffee lovers, that “good life” came from the spout of an electric percolator. It should therefore prove useful to examine a typical mid-20th century model. This particular coffee-maker (shown at right) was manufactured by S.W. Farber Incorporated and was marketed under the name “Farberware,” which is also the name of the company’s line of cookware. The pot’s classic, streamlined design harkens back to the art deco era, while a reference to far more ancient vessels can be seen in its curving, near Etruscan-styled handle and ornamented lid design. Coffee brews very quickly. As few as two to as many as eight cups can be brewed in less than five minutes.
The coffee produced tastes crisp and rich and, once familiar with its taste, is readily distinguishable from other methods of coffee preparation. Yet the most recognizable feature of the coffee-maker is the distinctive gurgling sound it makes while “percolating” or brewing the coffee. This process is amplified by the lid design, which features a glass top for the ready viewing of the coffee as it perks, growing ever darker until it is done. The percolating cycle terminates upon completion of the brewing cycle, and the coffee is conveniently kept warm for several hours if desired. This 1960s vintage percolator, the “Farberware Superfast Model 138,” was produced in the S.W. Farber manufacturing plant in Bronx, New York, though production of the “Farberware” percolator has since shifted to China.
In a classic example of the iconic American success story, the company was founded in 1900 by Simon W. Farber, an aspiring tinsmith who had emigrated from Antipol, Russia, in 1899. Farber made ends meet by selling matches in the Lower East Side of Manhattan before setting up shop in a basement at 66 Norfolk Street. From there Farber plied his tinsmithing trade, hammering sheets of brass and copper into vases and bowls. In 1910, Farber Brass and Copper Goods, as the company was then called, moved its production to 141-151 South Fifth Street in Brooklyn at the foot of the newly-constructed Williamsburg Bridge. The year also marked the introduction of “Farberware” cookware, though Farber continued to produce a line of giftware and accessories in plated finishes of silver, nickel, and chrome for many years. Simon Farber had an epiphany of sorts after creating a clamp-on light, a contraption that not only allowed him to sleep while his wife read in bed, but also led to the company’s great success as an electrical appliance manufacturer. Farber jumped into the percolator market in 1930 and began producing the Farberware line of electric coffee-makers, which continues to this day. Another significant innovation came in 1937, when Farber introduced the “Coffee Robot,” which managed to keep coffee warm for hours after brewing.”
On the underside of the percolator’s base, imprinted just above the name S.W. Farber, Inc., is the patent number: 2,817,743. The patent was filed on March 8, 1954, by Hoyt K. Foster, who is listed as inventor and assignor to S.W. Farber, Inc. In the application for the patent, Foster outlines the characteristics of the percolator’s new design, which is described as functioning faster and more effectively, and that the percolating process will automatically discontinue upon completion. A brief passage from the application provides an interesting look at the functional flaws in earlier percolator and how Foster’s new design substantively improved the appliance:
“Broadly, the invention in one aspect concerns the use of high wattage heating units without the attendant violent steaming and other adverse effects encountered with prior percolators, particularly when small quantities of coffee are to be brewed. As a result, quick initiation and completion of the percolating action can be attained without adversely affecting the strength or flavor of the coffee. Moreover, the pot can be filled only to a fraction of its capacity so that a ten cup percolator, for instance, may be used for brewing as little as two or three cups of coffee, in which case the processing time is proportionally reduced.”
Foster’s description casts the “Farberware Superfast Model 138” in a new light, in terms of promotion and the naming of products. In this particular instance at least, when S.W. Farber, Inc., chose to name its redesigned percolators, “Superfast,” it had the weight of the U.S. Patent Office behind it. Patented on December 24, 1957, the new percolator truly was a much faster and much improved means of preparing coffee.
Hoyt K. Foster was not the first to patent a percolator. That distinction belongs to Hanson Goodrich, an inventor from McLeansborough, Illinois, who received a patent for the modern, stovetop percolator on August 13, 1889. The specification paperwork for Patent No. 408,707 describes the now-familiar percolating process in plain language. In part, Goodrich writes:
“Upon being placed over the fire the water in the space between the base-plate and the bottom of the coffee-pot will become quickly heated and caused to boil. It will then rise through the tube, and, escaping from the upper end of the same, will fall over onto the coffee and will percolate through the same, so as to extract the strength therefrom, finally escaping through the perforated bottom of the cup to the body of water below.”
Despite having received the first U.S. patent for the percolator, Goodrich did not invent the method out of thin air. According to historian Mark Pendergrast, “During the first half of the nineteenth century there was a veritable explosion of European coffee-making patents and ingenious devices for combining hot water and ground coffee.” One of the most popular models was invented by Jean Baptiste de Belloy, who also happened to hold the office of Archbishop of Paris. In 1809, Belloy’s coffee-maker was greatly improved upon by, as Pendergrast describes him, “a brilliant, eccentric expatriate American named Benjamin Thompson, who preferred to be known as Count Rumford.” Rumford also had a few things to say about the proper way to prepare a cup of coffee. Water had to be fresh and close to the point of boiling. Coffee and water, however, should never be boiled together as was commonly done in America, and he advised never to reheat coffee. Rumford’s coffee-pot and counsel, however, never made it back to the States, which left Americans making their coffee out of boiled grounds and Goodrich free to patent his percolator a few decades later.
One last note on the imprinting at the bottom of the base of the “Farberware” percolator: In addition to such typical markings indicating that the product is UL listed, that the base should not be placed in water, and that the appliance provides for 120 volts – 1000 watts operation, there is a personal identification number engraved along the edge. The mark reads: D17 189 94N. While decoding its exact meaning would almost certainly prove a challenge, it is probable that it represents a homeowner’s insurance policy number or some other such personally identifiable code. The effort made to engrave this identification into the percolator’s base indicates that the value the owner had placed on the appliance in the event of its theft.
An earlier owner of this coffee-pot thought it was something worth keeping. When so many consumer goods are of a disposable nature today, it is well to remember that disposable, or rather, non or marginally repairable goods were not always the norm. Hoyt K. Foster certainly determined that the ability to service an appliance was an important feature of his new percolator design, writing that “the elements of this new and improved structure are designed and arranged to facilitate repair and maintenance, which is a highly important factor, especially in electrical devices.” Ease of repair is no longer an important consideration for consumer goods. Computerization and miniaturization have effectively eliminated the need for routine maintenance. Interestingly however, individual replacement parts and service remain widely available for Farberware percolators manufactured in the U.S. before 1998, while repair of the newer, Chinese-manufactured percolators consists of the replacement of the entire base as a single unit. That really says it all — a division between the centuries is marked by shifting power dynamics in global trade, as expressed in the trash bin consumerism of coffee-makers. The United States is certainly a consumer-driven economy, and while the coffee-maker market of nearly a century ago was perhaps less sophisticated than today, it was nevertheless subject to the same travails of human behavior.
 Bruce Lambert, “Milton Farber, 81, Retired Head Of Farberware Company, Is Dead,” The New York Times, November 15, 1991.
 Farberware Licensing Company, The Farberware Story, http://www.farberware.com/the_Farberware_story.html?hm=Y&ct=N&anw=N.
 Pratt Institute Historic Preservation Program, Historical Survey of the Southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 2011.
 Hoyt K. Foster, Assignor to S.W. Farber, Inc., Automatic Coffee Percolator, US Patent 2,817,743, filed March 8, 1954, and issued December 24, 1957.
 Hanson Goodrich, Coffee-Pot, US Patent 408,707, filed January 12, 1889, and issued August 13, 1889.
 Mark Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 47.
 Foster and S.W. Faber.
© 2014 – 2018, David Sprouse. All rights reserved.