William H. Ukers, not much over thirty, started working on his book in 1905, traveling and gathering material for a year. After he returned home to New York, he scoured nearby libraries and museums. Wherever he couldn’t go himself, he sent auxiliaries, appointing research assistants to mine collections in Europe, especially in London and Amsterdam. After seven years of research, Ukers began to organize the material he had collected, even as it continued to come in. Six years later, he began writing. As he wrote, new questions came up that he spent months trying to answer. After four years of writing, Ukers, now almost fifty, tracked down his last fugitive fact in the spring of 1922. In June, All About Coffee went to the printer.
The book was published by the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, which also published a monthly bulletin, one of two trade papers for the coffee industry. The other was The Spice Mill, founded by New York coffee roaster Jabez Burns in 1878. Ukers had started his career as a reporter at The Spice Mill, and he was promoted to editor in 1902. He left in 1904 to take over the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, which, in contrast to The Spice Mill’s emphasis on the grocery business, focused more on international trade. Every month, as he worked on his coffee book, Ukers was also writing, editing, and publishing a magazine on the same subject.
Trade journals aside, coffee had not been the subject of literary output equal to its importance in American life. In his foreword Ukers noted that All About Coffee was the first serious work on the topic published in the United States in more than four decades: the first since Francis Beatty Thurber’s From Plantation to Cup in 1881, and, before that, Robert Hewitt Jr.’s 1872 Coffee: Its History, Cultivation, and Uses. Ukers was being generous. In fact his book had no precedent. It spanned nearly 800 large‑format, two‑column pages of small type, plus 17 color illustrations, 500 black‑and‑white illustrations, 100 portraits, and 30 maps, charts, and diagrams. Among the features Ukers was most proud of were the “Coffee Chronology,” marking 492 dates of historical importance; the “Complete Reference Table of the Principal Kinds of Coffee Grown in the World”; and the “Coffee Bibliography,” encompassing 1,380 references, the last section of the book before the index, itself 28 three‑column pages.
William H. Ukers knew everything there was to know about coffee, but there were also some things about coffee—some of the most important things—that seemed unknowable. In the middle of his book were two chapters under the byline of Charles W. Trigg. Ukers had commissioned Trigg to write about “The Chemistry of the Coffee Bean” and “The Pharmacology of the Coffee Drink.” The complexity and difficulty of these subjects, and their stakes, demanded the authority of a specialist.
Trigg was a chemical engineer by training. By trade he was probably the country’s leading authority on instant coffee. Soluble coffee manufactured on the model of Japanese soluble tea had made its public debut at the Buffalo Pan‑American Exposition in 1901, and the first widely available retail product was known by the fairly menacing brand name Red E. Among its backers were executives from railroads, sugar refining, and the Singer sewing machine company, a consortium of interests that illustrates the role coffee drinking had come to occupy in the American economy. Trigg had done his academic research at the Mellon Institute, in Pittsburgh. When All About Coffee was published in 1922, he held the position of chief chemist at King Coffee Products in Detroit, where he was working on two products with clear value in America’s industrial cities: an instant brew called “Minute Coffee,” and a line of coffee‑based soft drinks called “Coffee Pep.”
The industrial orientation of Trigg’s work came through in the chapters he contributed to All About Coffee. “When the vast extent of the coffee business is considered,” he wrote, “together with the intimate connection which coffee has with the daily life of the average human, the relatively small amount of accurate knowledge which we possess regarding the chemical constituents and the physiological action of coffee is productive of amazement.” He did not use “amazement” in a positive sense. “It is possible to select statements from literature to the effect either that coffee is an ‘elixir of life,’ or even a poison. This is a deplorable state of affairs,” Trigg went on, “not calculated to promote the dissemination of accurate knowledge among the consuming public.” The implication was that it was calculated to promote something else.
Arguably the loudest anti‑coffee voice in the country was C. W. Post, cereal mogul, moralist, recovered neurasthenic. Neurasthenia was a common diagnosis in late‑19th‑century America, a condition indicated by symptomatic exhaustion that left its sufferers weakened to the point of bed rest. Post’s case had gotten bad in 1890, when he was in his mid‑thirties and down on his luck. In search of a cure, he went to John Harvey Kellogg’s sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. Kellogg was a dedicated opponent of coffee, which he identified, along with tea, as “a grave menace to the health of the American people.” The larger fear behind the American epidemic of neurasthenia was that the nation itself was getting weaker. Kellogg considered coffee an addiction that was sucking Americans’ vitality right out of them, leading to premature old age. For breakfast Kellogg’s sanitarium served his own patented cereal blends and what he called Caramel Coffee, made from bread crusts, bran, and molasses.
For most neurasthenics, sanitariums were places for soaking up the healing properties of the sun. In addition to this, Post took Kellogg’s ideas. By 1892, Post was well enough to open a sanitarium of his own in Battle Creek, which he called La Vita Inn. To provision it, he began to make his own strengthening foods, including, in 1895, his own coffee substitute, which he called Postum. Soon he began selling the mix to grocers, toting a portable stove from store to store and brewing up a pot at each stop. The recipe called for twenty minutes of brewing, plenty of time for a pitch. “When well brewed,” Post claimed, “Postum has the seal brown color of coffee and a flavor very like the milder brands of Java.” Even more important were his health claims. “It makes red blood,” Post promised as he raised start‑up funds to bring Postum to the mass market.
To promote his blend of roasted grains and molasses, Post, like Kellogg before him, cast coffee as a poison. Advertisements warned coffee drinkers of “coffee heart,” “coffee neuralgia,” “brain fag,” blindness, ulcers, disintegration of brain tissues, indigestion, reduced work time, low energy, poverty, obscurity, and paralysis. By 1902, Post—a habitual coffee drinker himself—had made a million dollars. After Post’s daughter, Marjorie, married in lavish style in 1905, William H. Ukers wrote a scathing editorial in the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal bemoaning the “gullibility of the American public,” who had after all paid for the wedding.
“Tell the truth about coffee”—that was the assignment William H. Ukers gave Charles Trigg, and it meant putting Post in his place with science. “The ingestion of coffee infusion is always followed by evidences of stimulation,” Trigg wrote in All About Coffee. “It acts upon the nervous system . . . increasing mental activity and quickening the power of perception, thus making the thoughts more precise and clear, and intellectual work easier without any evident subsequent depression. The muscles are caused to contract more vigorously, increasing their working power without there being any secondary reaction leading to a diminished capacity for work.” Having noted these benefits, Trigg proceeded down a list of the charges against coffee, refuting every one: insomnia, enervation, gout, addiction. There were, he acknowledged, certain people who had tricked themselves into believing that coffee was bad for them, including the 1 to 3 percent of Americans who were “very nervous”—neurasthenic, like C. W. Post. “So,” Trigg concluded, reasonably, “if one is personally satisfied that he belongs to the abnormal minority, and has not been argued by fallacious reasoning into his belief that coffee injures him, he should either reduce his consumption of coffee or let it alone.”
Still, there was one ambiguity at the heart of coffee science that Trigg could not resolve. In refuting Post, he cited multiple laboratory experiments that had concluded that coffee drinking led to an “increased capacity for work.” Yet while the effect was clear, the cause remained obscure: the existing experiments had not definitively established why coffee drinking increased working capacity. As much as he would have liked to clarify the “deplorable” contradictions that had been put forth about the “effects of coffee drinking on the human system,” Trigg could not explain the precise nature of the relationship between coffee, the human body, energy, and work. Though he deferred to Trigg on most scientific questions, William H. Ukers had in the course of his exhaustive research come up with an explanation that seemed right to him. Coffee, Ukers wrote in his foreword, was “a corollary of human energy and human efficiency.” It was “the most grateful lubricant known to the human machine.”
Today caffeine is extraordinary because it is so mundane. Used daily by the great majority of Americans—perhaps 80 percent—it is “by any measure, the world’s most popular drug . . . the only addictive psychoactive substance that has overcome resistance and disapproval around the world to the extent that it is freely available almost everywhere, unregulated, sold without license, offered over the counter in tablet and capsule form, and even added to beverages intended for children.” Yet two centuries ago, at the moment of its discovery, caffeine was anything but mundane. Instead it was a window on nature’s sublime intricacy.
Toward the end of his life, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the most celebrated intellect in Napoleon’s Europe, could see in his mind the invisible connections that bound the world together. He rejected Descartes’s separation of the mind and the body. He rejected Newton’s idea that the universe could be chopped into free‑standing parts, each of which could be analyzed in isolation from the others. Instead Goethe sought evidence of the wholeness he envisioned, some concrete example of “how the various parts work together.” He told a friend in conversation: “In nature we never see anything isolated, but everything in connection with something else which is before it, beside it, under it, and over it.” His thinking pointed in the direction science was going. German physician Hermann von Helmholtz, who described the conservation of energy in 1847, credited Goethe with anticipating the idea.
In 1819, the seventy‑year‑old Goethe, once an avid coffee drinker, gave to a younger acquaintance whom he thought “quite promising”—a physician named Friedlieb Runge—a box of coffee beans from the port of Mocha and a challenge to figure out what was inside them, how they worked, what they did, what invisible connections they had to the wider world. At the time there was little clarity about the cause and nature of coffee’s effects on the human body: it had confounded centuries of medical thought based on the humoral system, and modern medicine was barely in its infancy—Louis Pasteur, for example, was not even born.
Runge was up to Goethe’s challenge. After a few months of work, he isolated an alkaloid, a plant base, which he called Kaffeine—a compound of the German for “coffee” plus the suffix “ine,” from the Latin for “of the nature of.” For some time, the terms of this discovery were strictly enforced. When an analogous alkaloid was isolated from tea leaves in 1827, it was called “theine,” even after it was shown to be chemically identical to caffeine, which is now thought to have evolved in plants as an insecticide against certain harmful creatures and a stimulant to certain helpful ones. Runge would go on to a successful career in commercial chemistry, among the milestones of which was his pioneering work in synthesizing blue dye from coal tar, permitting textile manufacturers to color their cloth with the by‑products of its fabrication, and forcing indigo producers around the world—including El Salvador—to turn to other cash crops.
The chemical analysis of coffee cast new light on the question of its effects. Coffee was found to contain three “active principles,” or “causes.” In addition to caffeine, there was caffeone, its essential oil, the source of its aroma and flavor, and caffeic acid, its essential acid, which also contributed to the flavor. These findings established a fixed definition of coffee that had important implications for the food business, increasingly concerned with substitutes and purity. Individually, wrote one coffee merchant, “each of these elements possesses virtues or powers of its own, and plays a part in the general effect produced by coffee”; together, these three “active” components gave coffee its “individuality” as an item of commerce. Whatever didn’t have them wasn’t coffee.
Yet even as the definition of “coffee” took shape around these three “active principles,” their action and effects in the human body remained a matter of speculation and disagreement. What exactly did caffeine do, and how? “Coffee acts on the diaphragm and the solar plexus, where it spreads to the brain via immeasurable emanations that escape all analysis,” Honoré de Balzac wrote in 1839. “However, we can presume it is the fluids of the nervous system that conduct the electricity which this substance releases, and which it either finds or stimulates in our bodies.” For many years, the science remained at once definitive and ambiguous. More than a century after Runge’s discovery, one investigator counted more than seven hundred scientific articles on coffee—by “chemists, physiologists, psychologists, dietitians, physicians and food inspectors, in fact from every type of scientist who has anything at all to do with the preparation, analysis or effect of foods and articles of diet.” Two hundred thirty‑two of these, fully a third, focused on the question of coffee’s effects on the body. Their findings, as Charles W. Trigg lamented, were often wildly at odds with each other.
Even in W. O. Atwater’s calorimeter, where the operation of the human body was measured with unprecedented precision, coffee’s effects were obscure. Though German studies of workers’ diets had previously tried to account for coffee’s contributions to labor power, Atwater set coffee and tea apart from other foods, delinking caffeine’s effects in the body from the small number of calories—derived from the fat, or essential oil—in a cup of coffee. In studies of the food necessary “to live a day of the life of an ordinary man, say a mechanic or day‑laborer, doing a fair amount of manual work,” Atwater acknowledged that many subjects were drinking coffee regularly, but he left it out of his final energy accounting in an effort to “simplify the calculation.”
“Tea and coffee,” he wrote, “are not foods in the sense in which we use the word”— “material which, when taken into the body, serves to either form tissue or yield energy, or both.” He knew coffee was doing something to the body, and to respiration and metabolism specifically—“it has an invigorating effect, and may at times aid digestion”—but he could not make sense of these effects in terms of calories, so it seemed dubious. “Perhaps most of us would be better off if we did not drink tea or coffee,” Atwater concluded, and kept to the principle in his laboratory. While W. Smith was in the calorimeter, laboring over German treatises on physics to understand the laws his body could not help following, he had only water and milk to drink.
Atwater’s reservations about coffee were shared by the other pioneering Gilded Age inspector of the human body at work, Frederick Winslow Taylor. In the decades around the turn of the twentieth century, factory mechanization, artificial lighting, and standardized clock time made the physiological limits of the human body at work look like the last great obstacle to unbounded industrial productivity, and an urgent problem to be solved. In famous time and motion studies begun in the 1880s, Taylor analyzed workers’ movements to engineer the most efficient way of performing a given job, in the interest of reducing fatigue, maximizing output each workday, and paring the costs of production down to a hard minimum. In his personal habits and his trademark system of “scientific management” alike, Taylor emphasized consistency, steadiness, and sobriety as the keys to maximizing the productive use of “one’s forces.” As a result, he avoided stimulants and intoxicants of all kinds, including alcohol, tobacco, and coffee, for fear that they would throw off basic physiological functioning and lead to inefficiency.
Its reputation clouded by conflicting opinions and claims, coffee did not fit neatly into Atwater’s and Taylor’s mechanistic concepts of the human body. So the two people most responsible for the scientific study of work and quantification of labor in the United States joined Kellogg and Post, the two people most responsible for breakfast, in disapproval of coffee.
Excerpted from Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug by Augustine Sedgewick. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © by 2020 Augustine Sedgewick.