The History Of The US Coffee Shop Dates Back To Ancient Times

Vietnamese Coffee Exporter
history of the US coffee shop

Coffee has been an integral part of American culture for centuries, almost as long as the nation itself has existed. As specialty coffee shops and independent cafés continue to proliferate in major coffee hotspots across the United States, it raises the question: how has the coffee scene evolved over the years?

To explore the origins and future trajectory of the U.S. café culture, I consulted with an industry expert. Continue reading to discover their insights and perspectives on this fascinating journey.

History of the us coffee shop and the american revolution

The first recorded mention of coffee in the United States dates back to 1668. It was introduced to New Amsterdam (now New York) either by the Dutch or the British. To this day, there is still debate over the location of the first coffeehouse in the US, with most arguments favoring either Boston or New York.

Robert Thurston, Emeritus Professor of History at Miami University and author of Coffee: From Bean to Barista, believes that the correct answer is the London Coffee House, which was established in Boston in 1669.

During the American Revolution, drinking tea was considered unpatriotic due to its association with the British. Consequently, coffee quickly became the beverage of choice for “true Americans.” At that time, most US coffeehouses were located in New England, and many had clear political affiliations. The location and name of a coffeehouse often influenced its clientele.

For instance, the British Coffee House in Boston was frequented by Redcoats (British soldiers) and other loyalists, whereas the Green Dragon, also in Boston, served as a meeting place for many dissenters against British rule. Unsurprisingly, after the Revolution, the British Coffee House was taken over and fittingly renamed the American Coffee House.

The American civil war

Following the American Revolution, a passion for coffee rapidly took root in the fledgling United States. Over the ensuing decades, this enthusiasm spread widely, and by the time the American Civil War commenced in 1861, coffee had become a staple in the rations of both Union and Confederate soldiers.

However, coffee’s popularity was driven more by the stimulating effects of caffeine than by its taste. The coffee available at that time was likely roasted over open fires, resulting in an extremely bitter flavor. Soldiers often supplemented their limited coffee supplies with other ingredients such as chicory or tree bark to make a full cup.

“Coffee was the drug of the Civil War,” explains Robert Thurston, Emeritus Professor of History at Miami University. “It provided soldiers with energy and the stamina to continue fighting. It may have made a tremendous contribution to the Union’s cause.”

At one point, a Union naval blockade severely restricted coffee supplies in the South. This scarcity forced Confederate soldiers to trade their abundant tobacco for coffee from their Union adversaries across the border.

Coffee for the masses

It wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that coffee shops began to gain popularity among the general public, becoming accessible to those beyond the realms of government and finance.

This surge in popularity was partly fueled by a decrease in wholesale coffee prices toward the end of the 19th century. This price drop coincided with the expansion of the US railroad network, further facilitating the spread of coffee. Soon, coffee became not only widespread but also affordable, making it accessible to nearly everyone by the late 19th century.

Professor Thurston notes, “As early as the 1870s, there were drawings depicting ‘coffee breaks’ among shop girls in New York City, and this tradition quickly spread.” He adds, “The famous coffee break in US offices began in the 1920s. It provided a social setting, a point where people could meet.”

Despite this, coffee shops were still relatively rare at that time. Although a “café society” did emerge in the 1920s, it was more influenced by Prohibition than by coffee, centering around jazz, dancing, and bootlegged alcohol.

The modern American obsession with coffee didn’t truly begin until another significant event in the 1920s, which marked the beginning of a new era for coffee culture in the United States.

The great depression

When the Great Depression struck in 1929, food banks and soup kitchens began distributing coffee and donuts to hungry citizens. Professor Thurston explains that this practice in major cities around the world helped to cement the idea of an affordable cup of coffee. As a result, many people in the US still expect to find a cheap, accessible cup of coffee wherever they go. For instance, in New York City, it’s still possible to get a cup of coffee for a dollar in one of those iconic blue cups.

Coffee culture experienced another significant shift in 1941 when the United States entered World War II. Once again, coffee was included in every US soldier’s rations, supplied by the then-emerging Maxwell House. The post-World War II era saw a boom in advertising, which played a crucial role in boosting coffee’s popularity throughout the 20th century.

In the latter half of the century, newspapers, magazines, and television extensively promoted the virtues of coffee to American families. Advertisements focused on the “nuclear family,” depicting a hardworking father, a dedicated wife and mother, and cheerful children.

It’s no surprise that coffee advertisements from this period were tailored to emphasize family life. This was in contrast to European coffee ads of the same era, which often highlighted the elegance and sophistication of café culture.

Thus, the Great Depression and World War II, along with the rise of advertising, collectively shaped the modern American coffee culture, making coffee an integral part of daily life and reinforcing its image as an affordable, essential beverage for everyone.

Diner coffee

Despite the evolution of US coffee culture and the emergence of the third wave of coffee, one type of establishment has bucked the trend and remained a steadfast part of American life: the diner. These diners, often referred to as a “third place” outside of home and work, have become deeply ingrained in the American perception of coffee.

Dating back to the early 1900s, diners became popular as venues where people could enjoy a cheap meal accompanied by lukewarm filter or instant coffee. Their affordability and accessibility contributed to their enduring presence. Today, diner coffee continues to be a uniquely American phenomenon, characterized by its association with dark roasts and automatic filter machines.

The resilience of diners in the face of changing coffee trends underscores their importance in American culture. They offer a nostalgic and comforting coffee experience, distinct from the artisanal brews of modern specialty coffee shops. The enduring appeal of diners lies not only in their coffee but also in their role as community hubs where people gather to socialize, work, or simply enjoy a meal.

In summary, while the US coffee landscape has seen significant changes, diners have persisted as iconic establishments. Their history of providing affordable coffee and meals, coupled with their cultural significance, ensures that diners remain a cherished part of American coffee culture.

Coffee shops become widespread

In the late 1970s, the second wave of coffee began to sweep across the United States, marking the start of a new era in coffee culture where people increasingly frequented coffee shops. This period saw the transformation of cafés into social hubs, solidifying the concept of café culture nationwide.

Although the second wave emerged in the late 1970s, it truly gained momentum in the 1980s. This era also witnessed the rise of coffee chains, with Starbucks standing out as the most prominent example.

Professor Robert Thurston remarks, “Starbucks and Howard Schultz really revolutionized our perception of coffee, introducing American consumers to a new kind of coffee shop experience.”

Thurston further explains that the second wave naturally set the stage for the third wave, as coffee enthusiasts began to wonder, “Is there something better than Starbucks?”

The 21st century brought about the final shift: the third wave of coffee. This movement initially took hold in major cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, before expanding rapidly across the country throughout the 2010s. The third wave emphasized high-quality beans, artisanal brewing methods, and a deeper appreciation for the origins and flavors of coffee, further evolving the American coffee landscape.

Thus, from the late 1970s to the 2010s, the US experienced a profound transformation in its coffee culture, driven by the second and third waves, with Starbucks playing a pivotal role in reshaping the coffee shop experience.

Since the establishment of coffeehouses in the United States prior to the American Revolution, the country’s coffee shop culture has undergone significant evolution. From serving as war rations to becoming a central part of the third wave, coffee has undeniably been a deeply ingrained aspect of American culture for centuries.

What the future holds for this culture is still uncertain. As the third wave of coffee continues to expand and specialty coffee becomes increasingly commercialized, many questions remain about the direction coffee culture will take in the coming years.