“Coffee as a kind of miracle—better than food, a form of instant energy.”

From an essay “How Coffee Became a Modern Necessity” by Augustine Sedgewick in the Wall Street Journal:

Coffee is so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget how unusual it is. . . .Once used to fuel extraordinary acts of worship and creativity, coffee has become a necessity we rely on to meet the everyday demands of modern capitalism. . . .

By 1900, the new science of nutrition had applied thermodynamics to human physiology via the calorie, a unit of measure that expressed the needs and abilities of the body in common terms—inputs and outputs, food and work. On its own, the calorie didn’t resolve questions about coffee, which contains very few calories per cup. But the calorie did provide a stable framework for understanding coffee’s physiological effects since it made work look like the basic function and natural condition of a living body, much like an engine. This ascendant biology of drudgery informed a new consensus on coffee: It was lubricant for the “human machine.”

That idea was translated into advertising in the 1920s. Brazilian coffee growers and American coffee roasters cosponsored research to contest the claims of John Harvey Kellogg and C.W. Post, who, peddling trademark breakfast staples of their own, blamed coffee for an American epidemic of enervation and frailty. Samuel Prescott, an MIT biology professor, ran the study from 1919 to 1923, drawing heavily on earlier research funded by the Coca Cola Company which concluded that caffeine increased the body’s capacity for muscle or cognitive work within 15 minutes of consumption.

Prescott’s lasting contribution was to rebrand coffee’s apparent contradiction—generating work without calories, output without input—as a kind of miracle. Coffee was better than food, he concluded: a form of instant energy, a work drug not subject to the limits of appetite and the delays of digestion. The implication was that the human body on coffee was liberated from the laws of energy consumption and expenditure that governed the rest of the universe. Based on these findings, the coffee planters and roasters began to push a novel proposal: a pause in the workday for coffee, especially late in the afternoon.

After five centuries, we still have questions about coffee, but we agree on what we need it to do. Most of us drink coffee not because we have a finely calibrated understanding of its role in blocking the adenosine that makes us feel tired and increasing the dopamine that makes us feel good. Instead, we drink coffee because we have adopted (in part from the coffee business itself) a way of understanding ourselves and the world that makes it look like a godsend when we have no choice but to keep working—or even the fulfillment, for a moment, of our bottomless desire for more ideas, more talk, more energy, more time, more life.

—Prof. Sedgewick teaches history and American studies at the City University of New York. His new book, “Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug,” will be published on April 7 by Penguin Press.


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