This week’s eighth assignment pertains to objects and material culture. No offense to Freud but sometimes a cigar is more than just a cigar. Objects can tell us a lot about its parent culture: what they thought or believed; what they memorialized or celebrated; and some objects could have covert or subversive meanings which could be hidden in plain sight. For this assignment we are examining objects in a painting by John Lewis Krimmell entitled, The Quilting Frolic (1813).
I chose the coffee mill in the lower right corner of the painting. The object is a box mill coffee grinder which received its first United States patent in 1798 and was the twenty-six patent issued by the Federal government. In 1832, the second U.S. patent for box mills was granted to the Parker brothers, who manufactured their mill until 1932. The box mill consisted of a small box with a brass or iron hopper, where the roasted coffee beans would be placed, a crank burr grinder, and a drawer below the hopper to catch the ground coffee.
There has been some scholarly debate about the role coffee played in the revolutionary period and the early republic. One side claims that American’s love of coffee stemmed from a rejection of all things British (i.e. tea) and that drinking coffee was a way of showing support for America’s independence. Coffee was subversive and the stimulant of choice after the self-imposed ban on British tea which American patriots dumped into the harbor during the Boston Tea Party. The other side rejects this notion by citing the proliferation of coffee-houses in England starting in the late 1600s. They claim that the drink itself had nothing to do with revolutionary forces but that the culture that sprang up around coffeehouses offered intellectuals a public forum to discuss the issues (social, economic, and political) of the day.
Krimmel’s completed his painting in 1813 one year into the War of 1812, which pitted America against Britain in what some claim to be the Second American Revolution. British blockades of U.S. ports created a shortage of tea, which was probably a better explanation for Americans’ preference for the dark, seductive beverage. Coffee from Brazil was closer and cheaper to import than tea from Ceylon and India. America was also experiencing a love affair with all things French and the French were avid coffee drinkers. By 1830, Americans consumed about three pounds per person a year. It soared to five and a half pounds by 1850 and to a whopping eight pounds by 1859. The Civil War cemented America’s love of coffee as soldiers on both sides received coffee bean rations. By 1900, Americans drank nearly half of the world’s supply of coffee annually.
Coffee has always been a communal activity. It’s not surprising that Krimmel chose to represent it in his painting. Whether you agree or disagree on its subversive properties, coffee is usually enjoyed in groups and it leads to an exchange of ideas. It has been celebrated for its stimulating properties: socially, physically, and intellectually.
Allen, Stewart Lee. The Devil’s Cup: Coffee the Driving Force in History. (New York: Soho Press, 1999).
Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our Lives. (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
Wild, Antony. Coffee: A Dark History. (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co, 2004).