Editor’s note: In Laura Bien’s first local history column written for The Chronicle, she told the tale of a cigar maker’s son, who invented a combination device that would roast coffee and heat irons for pressing clothes. This week, she returns to the subject of coffee roasting … and grinding.
At a recent antique show at the Washtenaw Farm Council Grounds, my husband and I bought a cute wood and copper coffee grinder. “Cool – I can do it like they did it in the 19th century!” I thought.
At home, I poured store-bought roasted beans into the grinder’s cup and turned the handle. Fifteen minutes later, I was still turning.
The following morning I tried to Huck-Finn the kitchen chore onto my husband. “Try it! It’s pretty fun!” I enthused, while sidling back to the still-toasty bed. Within a week, the grinder was occupying a space in my collection of copper kettles atop the fridge, and we’d returned to using the good old can of ground coffee from Meijer. We gave up on the related idea of attempting to home-roast the beans. Phew.
Yet between 1867 and 1882, 13 different home coffee-roasters were patented in Michigan, seven of them in Ypsilanti. One Ypsilanti manufactory shipped several different models nationwide, and employed a traveling salesman to sniff out new markets.
The popularity of coffee roasters around the 1870s could be attributed to the coffee providers’ greed, ingenuity, and deceit.
In Michigan’s early days of pioneer privation, raw coffee beans could be roasted in a cast iron pan or Dutch oven. Whether in the hearth or on the stove, the method didn’t work very well, resulting in uneven roasting and burnt beans.
It didn’t work too well for Michigan soldiers in the Civil War, either, who received rations of unripe beans. The men roasted their coffee beans in camp kettles. Some made small pans by removing the circumferential lead solder from a canteen.
“In Civil War re-enacting, coffee, prepared from raw beans, fire roasted and ground in a cloth bag smashed between a rifle butt and a rock, is the authentic method used when serious hard core preparation is called for,” notes local reenactor John Delcamp. “Although not a coffee drinker, I completely enjoyed my cup from the captain’s kettle one frosty morning. It was the only thing available to drink, and was I thankful to get it.”
Roasting and smashing the beans was laborious, but few men would willingly forsake their cup of coffee. Some were tasting the beverage for the first time.
After the war, those new coffee-drinkers and their fellow soldiers returned home. As trade across the reunified country normalized, the demand for coffee grew. Some local households purchased labor-saving pre-roasted, pre-ground coffee in paper sacks. There was only one problem with that – but it was a big one, and not a new one.
“Look Out For Ground Coffee,” warned the October 16, 1843 issue of Michigan Farmer and Western Agriculturalist magazine.
Our readers are probably some of them aware that coffee packed in papers, and ready for immediate use, is offered at many of the groceries and shops of the dealers in such articles. Occasionally a good article may be offered; but to show of what a large portion of this ready made coffee is made, we make the following extract from the London Shipping List. ‘It has been ascertained that sawdust from mahogany, to the amount of more than 800 tons, has been used in the adulteration of what is called ready prepared coffee’.
Sawdust was but one of the myriad substances used to adulterate coffee. Roasted peas, chicory, acorns, corn, and grains were blended in, sometimes in excess of 75 per cent of the mixture’s volume, minimizing the actual coffee content and maximizing profits. In Michigan, adulterated ground coffee became the norm, and pure coffee a rarity.
One University of Michigan pharmacy student, Ypsilantian Samuel Crombie, put eight samples of ground coffee he’d purchased from local shops under his microscope. He examined the cellular structures of the samples, sketched them, and compared them to the actual cellular structure of coffee. His findings were published in Ann Arbor-based Physician and Surgeon magazine.
Samuel examined Centennial Coffee, Gillie’s Gold Medal Java, and ground coffee bought in bulk. All, without exception, were adulterated. Gillie’s, he said, “contained but very little coffee and was composed of wheat in great quantities, much of it unground, [as well as] chicory, corn, and peas.”
Inquiry was made and in every case investigation showed that there is but very little sale for coffee in any other form than in the unground berry, it being very generally recognized that coffee put upon the market in packages or in the ground form is almost certain to contain adulterations, and the fact that only eight of over thirty stores visited keep it on sale is evidence that there is very little demand for it.
Roasting beans at home was still an imperfect solution. Into this breach stepped Cassius Hall, the single most prolific coffee-roaster inventor in Michigan history.
Born in Michigan in 1847, Cassius invented his first coffee-roaster at age 28. It was a simple pot whose base fit into one of a cast-iron stovetop’s normally lidded holes. Inside the pot was a horizontal wire mesh cylinder whose axial rod was supported at each end in grooves in the pot’s rim, with a handle at one end of the rod. Coffee beans placed in the cylinder could be rotated in the hot air rising from the stove. ["In the Archives" featured this first coffee-roaster as a Mystery Artifact in December 2010.]
Cassius was granted a patent for his roaster in March of 1876. His employer, Parsons Brothers, began producing and shipping his roasters.
Cassius did not rest on his laurels. Over the next four years, he patented four increasingly sophisticated iterations of his roaster, culminating in his masterpiece. It featured an enclosed heating system, a sort of Archimedes screw to move the beans back and forth, and a tilting chamber that poured the roasted beans neatly out. His employer advertised the device as the “Peerless.”
One of Cassius’s inventions doubled as a peanut roaster, and other Michigan-created roasters did double or triple duty. Daniel Denison of Troy invented a coffee roaster that also popped corn. George Merrick of Adrian created one that roasted coffee, popped corn, and roasted peanuts. Mathias Stein of Ypsilanti outdid them all with an intricate and fussy contraption that claimed to simultaneously roast coffee and heat sad-irons.
Mathias kept his day job of cigar-maker.
As coffee roasters became more commonplace in 1870s homes, the market for ground coffee, as Crombie had noted in 1882, dwindled away.
Coffee merchants, however, devised a new gambit to boost sales, borrowing a trick from across the pond, where the practice had a history so pervasive that laws were passed against it.
In 1891, an enterprising Philadelphia manufacturer began mailing samples of his product to grocers.
Herewith we present for your inspection a sample of coffee compound.
It contains nothing but the best of pure and healthful ingredients, and is made only in the bean shape.
By blending with the natural coffee bean you can improve it, and bring it within the reach of those unable to purchase at the present high price of coffee.
… In ordering, send sample of roast, so that we can match your goods …
THE DOWLING MFG. CO.
The Dowling beans were made of glucose, water, and rye flour mixed into a paste and pressed into a mold, then dried and roasted. Some counterfeiters made fake beans in machines that resembled contemporaneous candy machines.
Another bogus bean maker wrote:
I send you by this mail a sample of “imitation coffee.”
This is a manufactured bean, and composed of flour; you can easily mix 15 per cent of this substitute in with genuine coffee that ranges in price from 20 to 22 cents, and it will improve the flavor of the same; it granulates the same as coffee. If you deal with us it will be in the most strict confidence.
… By the use of our bean you can increase your profits to 11 cents per pound and improve the flavor …
L. H. Hall
[p.s.] I would not show samples even to employees.
“Years ago,” said a New York Tribune article reprinted in the December 4, 1886 Scientific American, “all the coffee was ground in the grocery, but adulteration was carried on so extensively that the practice was established of buying the whole bean. This led some inventive Yankee humanitarian, who believed that too much coffee is bad for the nerves, to bring out the flour bean.”
The article said:
The grocer is not a foolish man. He does not sell these flour beans for coffee. This would give the business away. But when trade is dull, and the grocer must have something to occupy his mind, it is a pleasant recreation for him to mix a quantity of the flour beans with the genuine coffee. Then it cannot be easily detected. Only just enough of the flavorless bean is used to make a little profit. This is not quite one-half. When the honest housewife who buys whole coffee so as to get it pure grinds up this mixture, and the odor steals out from the mill, her eyes snap, and she laughs at the people who are foolish enough to buy the coffee which is ground at the store, and can be easily adulterated.
Finally, Michiganders had had enough. In 1895 the state passed an act “to prohibit and prevent adulteration, fraud, and deception in the manufacture and sale of articles of food and drink. The act mandated that items marketed as butter, cheese, lard, liquor, fruit jelly and butter, canned fruits and vegetables, or coffee beans be pure, and clearly labeled.
Michigan’s pure foods act predated by 11 years the Sinclair Lewis-inspired federal Pure Foods act of 1906. Adulterated foods continued to appear for a while in Michigan after the 1895 legislation. But the era of labor-intensive coffee made from bogus beans soon after faded away.
Another item that has faded away is this small, 5-inch-square tin truncated pyramid.
On opposite sides, spring-loaded M-shaped clamps are found. The Ypsilanti Historical Museum item is light and hollow. What might it be? Take your best guess and good luck!
Congrats to last column’s guessers George Lessard, cmadler, abc, and Jim Rees who correctly guessed that the item in question was a theodolite.