Two cases for Buffalo as the home of the first coffee break

Two cases for Buffalo as the home of the first coffee break

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Check out the drive-thru lines and amount of paper cup litter in every corner of Western New York, and it's proof enough that Buffalo loves a coffee break.

More than 60 years ago, the coffee break was already a well-established ritual in Buffalo plants and office buildings.

"Promptly at 10:30 each weekday morning and again at 3:30 in the afternoon, Buffalo business comes to a virtual standstill as thousands of peons drop their chores and head for the nearest coffee pot,” wrote Bob Williams in a 1959 Buffalo Evening News Magazine piece.

“Buffalo workers – office and factory – enjoy the boon of the coffee break twice a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year.

“ 'Let the boss worry about the time it takes,’ chortled one happy clerk, shoveling sugar into a cup of steaming brew. ‘This is a fringe benefit.’ ”

Maybe it’s worth noting, however, that the thousand-word story – all about Buffalo coffee breaks – doesn’t mention that the practice came to be here in Buffalo. So, should we be posting signs at our city limits that Buffalo is “The Home of the Coffee Break?”

Through the years, claims have been made that two different Buffalo companies were “the first” to offer employees some coffee and/or time to drink it, giving birth to a phenomenon that has become an American tradition.

Taking a look at the documentation that survives from more than a century ago proves, at a minimum, that workers at both the Larkin and Barcalo plants in Buffalo were the beneficiaries of progressive employers who cared about the safety and well-being of their workforce in the form of steaming cups of joe.

Half a century before the famous Barcalounger bore his name, Edward Barcalo was a leader in creating a more hospitable work environment for the workers producing metal beds, cribs and hand tools at his plants on Chandler Street in Black Rock and on Louisiana Street in the First Ward.

Other industrialists from around the country sought his advice on creating better conditions for employees. In 1910, Barcalo wrote about his company’s “Pantry Department,” essentially an employee lunchroom-- a new concept at the time.

More than 150 workers ate “good, big and hearty meals” at lunchtime at Barcalo’s plant.

The businessman was also concerned with the plight of families and children in the city outside of working hours. He was a vocal proponent of creating play areas outside of every city school and making them open to the public when school wasn’t in session, especially over summer.

“We are facing the fact that places must be provided for playgrounds,” said Barcalo in 1909. “The rapid and natural growth of our city has driven a large proportion of the children into the streets, from where they are driven by teams (of horses), automobiles, and the police. It’s no wonder that they want to fight back and throw stones. They are simply obeying a natural impulse to fight for their rights to live and enjoy themselves. But we, too, are to blame for failing to provide them with a chance to grow up healthy. This is not a matter of charity, but one of dollars and cents, for immediate consideration and future benefit.”

Barcalo’s benevolence is well-recorded, but it’s not until the 1960s that the first claim of “the first coffee break” surfaces.

A 1965 article from United Press International was printed in dozens of newspapers around the country, many with the unambiguous title, “The coffee break originated in Buffalo.”

UPI Financial Editor William Laffler quotes “Associated Industries of New York State” in reporting that “the coffee break originated at the Barcalo Manufacturing Co. in Buffalo in 1902.”

The article – which is the ultimate source for each of the dozens of mentions of Barcalo and Baraclounger as the originator of the coffee break found online – also quoted longtime Barcalo executive Alban W. Kirton.

He worked for the company for 52 years, starting as a courier in 1902, where he remembered those early coffee breaks.

“We nominated a volunteer, the assistant bookkeeper and the only woman in the plant. We installed her in the boiler room with a hot plate heated by kerosene and everybody chipped in for coffee," said Kirton.

The recorded facts about Edward J. Barcalo certainly bolster the claim made 63 years later that he offered his employees a coffee break, but there are question marks as well.

The trade group quoted as having given Barcalo the title "first," was founded and led for decades by Edward Barcalo and later by Kirton.

Kirton was also quoted on several occasions making dubious claims about Barcalo "being first."

In 1952, he told the Courier-Express that his company was the first to have a fully electrical plant and also the first to switch from horse-drawn to motorized trucks – claims only found in the one article.

There's little doubt that Barcalo Manufacturing was an early adopter of these practices, but the problem comes with the definitive "first," which just isn't true.

That takes us to The Larkin Company, Buffalo’s other claimant to the title of “America’s First Coffee Break.”

The proof there is a bit more definitive – but leaves room for discussion.

Research done by Sharon Osgood and Jerry Puma for the Larkin Gallery at The Larkin Center of Commerce shows that John D. Larkin’s workers were enjoying coffee breaks as early as 1900 – two years before the Barcalo claim.

A 1901 Larkin newsletter not only makes reference to the coffee breaks that had started a year earlier, the newsletter even published a photo of the coffee break room, with a 15-gallon boiler to serve 600 employees on their break.

Two years later, the State Department of Labor wrote about the coffee breaks in greater detail.

The coffee was free during Larkin’s 1901 coffee break, but it came in the noon hour. Barcalo’s employees paid for their coffee in 1902, but the break came around 10am, the more traditional "coffee break" time.

Each likely has room for at least a partial claim, but regardless of which company was “first,” the whole notion was likely borne of a discussion between friends.

Edward Barcalo and John Larkin were good friends, involved in industry and politics together, and when Larkin died in 1926, Barcalo was a pallbearer.

Either way, until someone shows otherwise, there’s little doubt that whether it was on Louisiana Street in the First Ward or on Exchange Street in the Hydraulics, Buffalo is the first place folks first had time away from their toil with a steaming cup of joe.

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