Skip to content
CityLab
Culture

A Brief History of the Coffee Break

We’ve been guzzling joe at work for more than a century.
Men drinking coffee at the "One Cent Coffee Stand" of the Greater N.Y. Philanthropic Society.
Men drinking coffee at the "One Cent Coffee Stand" of the Greater N.Y. Philanthropic Society.George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress

In many offices, you’d be hard-pressed to find a desk without a half-full coffee mug, or an employee who doesn’t stop to refill at some point throughout the day.

Unsurprisingly, the origin of the “coffee break” is entwined with the evolution of the eight-hour work day, adopted by many factories in the early 1900s. The first vacuum-sealed coffee grounds were also released around 1900, by San Francisco-based company Hills Brothers, according to a Smithsonian video about America’s giddy love affair with the sludge. As unions gained traction, mandated respites became the norm—and many workers used that time in the middle of a shift to refuel by sipping mugs of coffee swirled with cream and sugar.