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In an invaluable study of declining businesses of the late 20th century, Kathryn Harrigan traces the shifting nature of percolator manufacturers. One of the more striking trends in percolator sales is connected to the physical composition of the appliance itself. As was mentioned earlier, stainless-steel percolators were very attractive to consumers of the 1920s, yet they remained prohibitively expensive for a good number of Americans. Harrigan found that their price point fell dramatically when Mirro Aluminum introduced the all-aluminum percolator in the 1920s. Mirro’s cheaper coffee-maker quickly garnered half of all percolator sales until it lost ground to another innovative competitor — the all glass, flame-powered model made by Silex. Wartime shortages of stainless steel and aluminum during WWII were a boon to Silex, which had captured nearly 60 percent of the coffee-maker business by war’s end. Harrigan ties the decline of the Silex Company to wartime overcapacity and high overhead, which led to its eventual purchase by Proctor Electric to become the now-familiar Proctor-Silex. For its part. S.W. Farber, Inc., developed a reputation as a high-end, kitchen appliance maker, as its stainless-steel percolators were available for sale only in higher end retail stores. In a wave of industry consolidation in the early 1960s, the former Farber Brass and Copper Goods that Simon Farber had founded as a young tinsmith on the Lower East Side of Manhattan was purchased by Walter Kidde & Company in 1965.
Despite its broad popularity, the electric percolator could not hold its own against the automatic drip coffee-maker. Introduced in 1972 by Mr. Coffee, the new coffee-maker was essentially an inexpensive, kitchen counter sized version of a commercial coffee-maker. Topping its list of advantages was the claim that it would not produce the often bitter-tasting coffee associated with percolators. The problem was held to be better addressed through the use of disposable paper filters and by maintaining a consistent water temperature set just below the point of boiling. In a nod to the increasing throwaway nature of the American consumer, Mr. Coffee also provided for the comparatively easy disposal of used coffee grounds by tying their elimination to the machine’s required paper filters.
Dennis Hevesi, writing in the New York Times, explains that the consumer version of the automatic drip coffee-maker was the creation of two longtime friends, Samuel Glazer and Vincent Marotta, of Cleveland, Ohio, who drew inspiration from the coffee-makers they were delivering as part of their coffee delivery service. A pair of former Westinghouse engineers were enlisted to design the new coffee-maker, which was fundamentally different from the percolating method. In the automatic drip method popularized by Mr. Coffee, water is heated at the top of the machine before dribbling into and through the coffee grounds, which are held in position by a disposable paper filter in a plastic basket. The coffee then falls, drip by drip, into a carafe sitting atop a heating element. A number of competitors quickly offered their own versions of the automatic drip coffee maker, but none had baseball legend Joe DiMaggio going to bat for their products as Mr. Coffee did. Mr. Coffee sold over a million coffee-makers in its first three years and continued to dominate the coffee-maker market into the late 1970s.
Forty years after its introduction, the automatic drip coffee-maker remains the most popular way to brew a cup of coffee at home. As the chart on the following page indicates, sales of the automatic drip lead the top three coffee-makers by a considerable margin, with percolators not even ranking. Sales of single-serve coffee-makers have made significant inroads on the automatic drip’s market dominance, with sales of the product more than doubling between 2008 and 2010. Automatic drip sales in the U.S. have experienced a marked decrease in recent years — from 19.4 million sold in 2007 to 18.5 million sold in 2010. If what popularized the automatic drip coffee-maker was its convenience over percolators, the upward trend in sales of single-serve coffee-makers at the expense of automatic drip machines seems likely to continue.
The electric percolator is largely a relic of the 20th century. While it is still available for purchase, copious advertising in popular magazines and television have cast the percolator as a prop to be frozen in time, forever associated with the smiling housewives and blushing brides of a tail-finned past. Percolators apparently put the bliss in domesticity, but they also spelled reinvigoration for the weary traveler. Road sign advertising needed only to feature the familiar form of the percolator to pull in the customers. Coffee was sure and certain. It was what one bought for the down-and-out and what began each day for the up-and-coming. Coffee, percolated coffee.
 Harrigan, 192.
 In the percolator’s defense it should be noted that a clean, electric percolator typically does not produce bitter coffee. Coffee quality is significantly more reliable in the stainless-steel models, as aluminum does tend to “color” the taste of the color by retaining a detrimental amount of the coffee’s natural oils. (DPS)
 Dennis Hevesi, “Samuel Glazer Dies at 89; Popularized Drip Coffee” The New York Times, March 21, 2012.
© 2014 – 2018, David Sprouse. All rights reserved.