How a Psychologist and Maxwell House Coffee Created the Coffee Break
The coffee break is as much a part of American culture as baseball and apple pie. Who doesn’t look forward to that morning or afternoon excuse to take a break and grab a cup of coffee? But the question is: who started this wonderful tradition? What if I told you its origins have something to do with a behavioral psychologist named J.B. Watson and the American coffee company Maxwell House? Sound weird? Wait until you read the story.
J.B. Watson’s Ad for Maxwell House Coffee
J.B. Watson was an American psychologist whose ideas were the basis for behaviorism—the theoretical system famous for its experiment known as “Pavlov’s dog.” Essentially Watson and other behaviorists believed people could be trained to react in predictable ways through repetitive actions. This theory captured the interest of many corporate advertising agencies trying to find ways to lure the buying interest of the public. After his time as an academic psychologist, Watson worked for an advertising agency that came up with the devious idea of using brain washing techniques created by psychologists to get people to buy their client’s products. Eventually Watson worked on an advertisement for Maxwell House coffee, and in the commercial he incorporated the idea of a coffee break. Of course, if you were going to have a coffee break you had to be drinking Maxwell House coffee. Did it work? Well, Up until the late 1980’s, Maxwell House coffee was the most purchased brand of coffee in the United States. I guess you could say Old Watson knew what he was doing.
Not everyone agrees with the claim Watson and the Maxwell House coffee company gave birth to the coffee break. Others argue the coffee break originated in Wisconsin in the 19th century when working moms would take mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks to tend to their children. While they made breakfast and lunch, they’d enjoy a quick cup of Joe. Another theory traces the story to two New York companies that claim they were the first employers to give their workers coffee breaks twice a day.
At the same time, the labor movements of the early 20th century were pushing through minimum wage laws, labor unions, and benefits. Today, a coffee break is taking place every minute. Whether you’re at home, at work or waiting in line at the bank, there’s bound to be a coffee machine somewhere, brewing up a fresh cup of Java. No matter how the coffee break originated, one thing is for sure: Americans around the country celebrate break time with a delicious cup of the good stuff.