In the Archives: As the Coffee Grinder Turns

Michigan's history of adulterated ground coffee

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.


Cassius Hall invented increasingly sophisticated coffee roasters, culminating in this model in 1880.

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.”

He continued:

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.

Cassius Hall's inaugural coffee roaster was a Mystery Artifact of some weeks ago

Cassius Hall's inaugural coffee roaster was featured as a Mystery Artifact in December 2010.

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.

Dear Sir:

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 …

Yours, etc.,


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:

Dear Sir:

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.

Mystery Artifact

Another item that has faded away is this small, 5-inch-square tin truncated pyramid.

Mystery Artifact

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.


  1. By Matthew Naud
    February 2, 2011 at 7:20 pm | permalink


  2. By AJ
    February 2, 2011 at 7:31 pm | permalink

    The mystery item is a toaster.

  3. By Laura Bien
    February 2, 2011 at 7:51 pm | permalink

    Matthew & AJ: Interesting guess. Hmm, if that’s so, wouldn’t the bottom part of the bread get too squashed though?

  4. By Steve Gilzow
    February 3, 2011 at 9:58 am | permalink

    Laura, Interesting article! I use a coffee grinder inherited from my grandparents. It’s made by Crystal and is over one hundred years old. Its milling plates easily adjust from ultra fine to very coarse grind. A minor note: I believe you tried to “Tom Sawyer” the chore onto your husband — rather than “Huck Finn.” Tom was the guy touting the joys of whitewashing a fence.

    The mystery artifact is no doubt a portable Mayan pyramid, created for traveling Mayans. The springs were to clamp various sacrificial beings.

  5. By Laura Bien
    February 3, 2011 at 10:11 am | permalink

    Steve: You are absolutely correct: I can’t believe I made such a stupid mistake. You’re right; I was thinking of Tom Sawyer, not Huck Finn. It’s incredibly embarrassing to admit, but I was wrong. But I do appreciate your pointing out the mistake, so that I can avoid making it again in the future. Thank you.

    Your grinder sounds pretty cool and more sophisticated than the little one we got at the antique show. Both my husband and I are not at our bests in the early morning, and sleepily grinding away at coffee beans for a good chunk of time, only to get pretty gravelly results, just didn’t cut it. Add to that the task of home-roasting beans on a stovetop and one starts to appreciate how pervasive the problem of adulterated ground coffee used to be.

    Your guess of portable Mayan pyramid is…an interesting one. :)

  6. By 'Ff'lo
    February 3, 2011 at 12:24 pm | permalink

    I like the Mayan pyramid too. But yeah, it’s a toaster.

  7. By matt naud
    February 3, 2011 at 7:03 pm | permalink

    The bread should rest on the loops – not get clamped on. But I would expect the rests to be on the side with holes. Can’t tell whether you could switch how the wires are to make that work?

  8. By Rod Johnson
    February 3, 2011 at 7:51 pm | permalink

    This is the kind of toaster your put on a stove, right? The heat from the stove warms the air, which warms the metal, which toasts the bread by radiant heat. The holes are to vent the hot air, so you wouldn’t want the bread up against it, and the smooth surface does a better job at radiant heat….is my guess. Finding a way to vent the heated air while still keeping the bread warm enough to carmelize the sugars is kind of the main design problem of toasters.

    However, there are versions that have vents on all four sides, so I might be completely wrong.

  9. By abc
    February 3, 2011 at 9:23 pm | permalink

    You’re all wrong. Its a marshmallow grater. You drag said marshmallow over the scoops and the gratings fall inside the pyramid. You can use the four holes to see when the inside is filled up. And yes it works better with stale marshmallows; no zip-lock bags back in the day.

    But what, you ask, do with grated marshmallow. I don’t know customs were different back then.

    Psst Laura. I don’t think those wire things are clamps. I think they are just stands for the ‘product’.

  10. By Laura Bien
    February 3, 2011 at 10:27 pm | permalink

    Some interesting guesses from ‘FF’LO, Matt Naud, and Rod Johnson.

    ABC: Grated marshmallow would make a lovely and realistic snow substitute on a gingerbread house, wouldn’t it? Aside from the many other uses for grated marshmallow (edible packing material, accents for sand paintings, fake fur for wooden poodle puppets, &c., &c., &c…)

  11. February 4, 2011 at 12:23 pm | permalink

    I’m quite familiar with camp toasters. My family camped several weeks every summer when I was a kid, and every morning we had camp toast for breakfast. That’s not what this is. A camp toaster is open in the middle, holds four slices, and the holders fold flat when not in use.

    As for what this is, I’m stumped. The little steps on the springs could be for holding something, but I think they just give the wires extra springiness. I’m not sure the bumps are louvers, they could just be serrations to more firmly grip whatever it is this thing holds. I will give this some thought and get back to you.

    If it is a Mayan artifact, I’ll just note that the 40 bumps are arranged in two groups of 20, which could correspond to the 20 day month of the Mayan calendar.

  12. By Laura Bien
    February 4, 2011 at 1:08 pm | permalink

    Jim Rees: Shrewd observation there, on the groups of 20. Though I must humbly point out what you doubtless know: that the Mayans were not the only Mesoamerican people with a 20-day calendar (cough).

  13. February 4, 2011 at 1:28 pm | permalink

    As an aside on Civil War coffee, the Union used “essence of coffee”, which was a sludge consisting of prepared coffee, milk and sugar, boiled down until thick. The idea was that soldiers could then quickly prepare it by mixing one or two tablespoonfuls into hot water. Because it was generally made from low-quality ingredients (to save on cost), including spoiled milk, it gained a bad reputation, but if made properly it can taste fine, keep for a very long time (years), and be reconstituted quickly. It’s also excellent over ice cream or stirred into cold milk as a treat. There are a few companies that make a similar product today, although from CW descriptions, the modern versions are a little thinner.

  14. February 4, 2011 at 1:34 pm | permalink

    As for the mystery item, you have it upside-down. It’s a device for making massive quantities of coffee. Just fill it with the ground beans and set it into your vat of boiling water. The spring-loaded clips are to attach bags with extra flavorings (chicory, etc.).

  15. February 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm | permalink

    Or maybe it’s a better mousetrap, designed to catch a mouse and cook it, all in one!

  16. By Laura Bien
    February 4, 2011 at 1:49 pm | permalink

    cmadler: I did not know that fascinating tidbit @ CW coffee; thank you for that info! I got curious about it and found this interesting article about the switchover from issuing whole beans to “coffee extract.”

    To my knowledge the CW was the primary agent that helped popularize canned food, like coffee extract, in the US, even though Napoleon had spurred the idea of canning food more than a half century earlier by offering a prize for a method of food preservation that would aid in his Russian campaign.

    For a gruesome example of some of the adulteration that went into CW canned foods I recommend the excellent novel “Sherman’s March” by Cynthia Bass.

  17. By Laura Bien
    February 4, 2011 at 4:40 pm | permalink

    …page 205 (shudder).

  18. February 4, 2011 at 6:58 pm | permalink

    “You drag said marshmallow over the scoops and the gratings fall inside the pyramid.”

    I tried this out with an actual grater and reasonably stale marshmallows as suggested. It was not a successful experiment, unless you count as success the mangling of a marshmallow into a grotesque goo. It fell fall short of anything resembling gratings, and left me crying bitter tears of disappointment.

  19. By Laura Bien
    February 4, 2011 at 11:23 pm | permalink

    Ouch. That sounds pretty traumatic, Dave. My heart goes out to you. I do hope you got support and sympathy after that disillusioning experience.

    Perhaps pre-freezing the marshmallow would make it more grateable? Ideally with some dry ice, since that’s all fume-y and cool. Then I bet you could grate that puppy from here to breakfast. I have a lovely mandolin you could borrow but you’re on your own as for sourcing dry ice in AA (didn’t I read a Chronicle story about where to buy it?)

  20. February 6, 2011 at 3:16 pm | permalink

    Having done some more research, I’m now pretty sure this does cook something on top of a stove, but not toast. I’ve found photos of stove top toasters that look similar to this. But they have bread holders on four sides. The bumps are almost certainly louvers. I suspect the springs hold whatever it is by the top.

    Perhaps it holds a pair of socks or mittens and dries them off after a long day of sledding. Then you could grate marshmallows for your hot chocolate, which you would enjoy while planning a trip to some place warm like Tikal.

  21. February 6, 2011 at 4:30 pm | permalink

    I think that Rod (#8) is correct. My mother used an object that looked just like this, and she put it on the stove to toast bread, which it did very nicely. I am not exactly sure how it worked (bumps or springs or louvers or whatever)–it just did.

  22. February 8, 2011 at 8:04 pm | permalink

    Here is an example of a two-slice toaster that looks very similar to this one: [link]

    I’m starting to think this is a toaster, and somehow the holders got installed wrong.

    For dry ice, the only place I ever go is Washtenaw Dairy.

  23. By Laura Bien
    February 8, 2011 at 10:09 pm | permalink

    Jim: It sounds as though you are hot on the trail and burning with anticipation. Lots of good sleuthing going on.

    Your point about the holders perhaps being installed wrong is entirely possible of course. In a local museum that shall remain nameless, there is one wooden item at one time manufactured in that locale which is showcased in its glass case, specially lighted, accompanied by informative placard…..and upside-down.

  24. By Laura Bien
    February 8, 2011 at 10:10 pm | permalink

    Anna: That is fascinating. I was about to ask if you had pics of the object but then realized that this is not exactly an item for which people held special photoshoots. :)

  25. February 9, 2011 at 4:43 am | permalink

    No photographs but up until a few years ago, I had the actual item. Unfortunately, when we moved to smaller accommodations, I had to give up many of the old-time gadgets such as soup/applesauce strainers, cast iron pots, simple toasters, etc. that my mother so effectively used in her kitchen. I never had the talent to emulate her.