Here's How Coffee Breaks Were Invented

More than 150 million Americans drink coffee in some form, with nearly half the population enjoying this perky beverage that helps those who indulge stay alert and active throughout the day. Many people reach the point where they can hardly function in the morning until they sip that first cup of joe.

Over time, coffee has practically become synonymous with office culture and productivity. The term "coffee break" has even entered our lexicon to indicate a 10-15 minute pause from job-related activities in which employees refuel, recharge, and converse with fellow colleagues. As a major coffee retailer, Dunkin' Donuts adopted the catchphrase "America runs on Dunkin'," which, let's be honest, seems to appeal more to the coffee side of their business than the donuts.

But where did the idea of a coffee break originate, and who is credited with starting this now common workplace ritual? Numerous sources date the coffee break to a 1955 court case, the United States vs. Phil Greinetz of Los Wigwam Weavers. The defendant referred to in the case, Phil Greinetz, owned a Denver tie factory called Los Wigwam Weavers.

The case revolved around a mandatory policy Greinetz had implemented that required his employees to take two 15-minute coffee breaks. This was not some gesture of goodwill, but rather a calculated tactic. Greinetz quickly realized that the coffee infusion kept his workers energized and productive. He also neglected to pay his staff for these mandatory "rest periods."

The coffee break has competing origin stories

When the case was brought to court, the U.S. Department of Labor became involved on behalf of Los Wigwam Weavers' employees. The United States District Court of the District of Colorado stated that Greinetz's business benefited from these coffee breaks through increased productivity and output, and ruled in favor of the employees, ordering that employers must compensate workers for their breaks. And thus, the coffee break was born.

But like most origin stories, there are differing accounts surrounding when coffee breaks were invented. One tale links coffee breaks to Norwegian immigrants and a 19th-century wagon factory in Stoughton, Wisconsin. The wives of the wagon-building men were asked by tobacco warehouse owners to help with the local tobacco harvest. They agreed, but only on the condition that they would be allowed breaks in the morning and afternoon to return home and address domestic chores — where they could also enjoy a cup of hot coffee warmed on the stove.

Another foundational narrative ties the coffee break to a company called Barcolo Manufacturing in Buffalo, New York. In 1902, Barcolo apparently began providing its employees with two coffee breaks per shift, in the hopes that a jolt of caffeine would boost productivity. According to The Atlantic, the term "coffee break" can be attributed to a 1952 advertising campaign by the Pan-American Coffee Bureau, and its slogan "Give yourself a coffee-break ... and get what coffee gives to you." We'll brew a cup to that!