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The United States of Coffee: Lessons in Roasting and Geography

Welcome to Out of The Archives and Into the Streets, the Archive on Parade Blog.

I'll be posting here to offer you a look into the research process, and highlight some cool stuff I find in archives around town.

John Arbuckle

Today's post honors John Arbuckle, the Coffee King of Brooklyn, and some of his ingenious advertising (circa 1889) that I found in the Map Division at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Branch of the New York Public Library.

New Yorkers have loved coffee since at least 1668, when the first written reference to coffee appeared in America. Turns out a drink made of roasted beans, and flavored with sugar, or honey and cinnamon, was the new beverage on the block in 17th century New York.

After the Civil War, New York became the coffee capital of the country, and at the turn of the 20th Century, 676,000,000 pounds of coffee, or 86% of the total consumed in the United States, docked in New York Harbor. Coffee importers were known as coffee men, and different varieties of the bean were known as chops.

Coffee men sorting Chops

There were many coffee men in New York, but none had Arbuckle's chops. In his 1922 book, All About Coffee, William Ukers called Arbuckle "the honored dean of the American trade, pioneer package-coffee man, sometime coffee king, sugar merchant, philanthropist and typical American."

Arbuckles' Coffee Warehouse, Jay Street

If by typical American, you mean that he imported more than double

the beans of the next largest New York importer; that his Jay Street roasting facility on the Brooklyn Waterfront employed people from fields as diverse as blacksmithing and engineering; and that the roasting plant was home to 200 draft horses as well as fleets of trains, boats and barges, then yes, say hello to John Arbuckle, Typical American.

Arosia Package Coffee

Before Arbuckle, Americans bought their coffee green and roasted it themselves over an open flame. Arbuckle thought he could deliver a better product if he roasted and packaged coffee for sale. He introduced his Arosia brand coffee in 1 pound bags in 1873, and soon Arosia would account for between 1/5 and 1/4 of all coffee sold in the United States.

Arosia was such a hit because John Arbuckle was a marketing genius! With Arosia, customers got not only coffee but also fabulous prizes. Since each package of Arosia bore the Arbuckle Bros. signature, Arosia drinkers could collect Arbuckle Signatures and redeem them for a spectacular array of giveaways including toothbrushes, suspenders, clocks, guns and jewelry. An Arbuckle executive even noted, "one of our premiums is a wedding ring. If all the rings of this pattern serve their intended purpose, then we have been participants in 80,000 weddings a year." That's a lot of coffee to have and to hold.

In 1889, each package of Arosia also came with an advertising card illustrated with a State of the Union or Nation of the World. On the back of each card, Arbuckle advertising copy explained that "the pictures illustrating the particular industries and sceneries of the Sates and Territories are entirely new, and by the very best American artists."

Arbuckle's Advertising Post Cards, 1889

But were they just pretty? No! If you read the back of the card as instructed ("READ THIS.") Arbuckles' will tell you the cards are "artistic and instructive." In fact, they were used in schools to teach geography. Advertising and education. Two coffee pots, one stone.

Reverse of Advertising Cards

Learn more About Arbuckle, his epic feud with Sugar King Henry Havemeyer, and the history of coffee and sugar in New York at the Brooklyn Brainery on April 12th!

If you'd like to visit the Map Division at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Branch of the New York Public Library (5th Avenue and 42nd Street), it's open to the public Monday-Saturday, 10am-5:45pm, except Tuesday and Wednesday when it stays open until 7:45pm.

Happy history hunting!


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