Coffee Break

I am not a coffee drinker, but many of my colleagues at the Rosenbach definitely enjoy a good cup. So when I was paging through issues of the Oregon Statesman looking for possible references to the 1859 Pig War (more on that another time) and ran across a front-page tidbit entitled “Coffee,” it caught my eye.

“Coffee,” Oregon Statesman. 20 September 1859. collection of the Rosenbach. AN .O663

The article, which covers both coffee and tea, claims to be extracted from ” a new work by Dr. Bigelow of Boston.” This seems be his book Nature in Disease, published in 1854. But what really fascinated me was the way in which, the more things change, the more they stay the same. For example, one of the passages notes that:

It is well known that coffee is strongly promotive of watchfulness and enables us to resist for a long time the approaches of sleep. Students, whose lucubrations occupy a considerable portion of the night, find a great increase of the vigilance and vigor of their faculties, derived from the use of both coffee and tea.

So, in other words, students pulling all-nighters in the 1850s drank a lot of coffee. Sound familiar? One of the noted drawbacks to coffee and tea use might also be familiar to modern readers

the long habit of drinking these articles renders us so dependent on them for the power of keeping the mind awake that a change of them to any other form of diet creates in most persons, at least for a time, a drowsiness and dullness of intellect.

The article also notes that excessive coffee intake, especially without food, can lead to “tremors, headache, vertigo, and some more serious disorders.”  Despite these drawbacks, coffee, then as now, was clearly very popular. In fact, there was a great story on “War and Peace and Coffee” earlier this week on NPR, in which Smithsonian curator John Grinspan noted that in Civil War soldier journals, “The word coffee was more present in these diaries than the words “war,”
“bullet,” “cannon,” “slavery,” “mother” or even “Lincoln.”” He even describes rifles with coffee grinders built into the stock. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of those, so if anyone knows of a collection that has one please let me know!

That’s it for this historical coffee break–now back to work!