Saturday, June 11, 2016

Welcome Back Andrea Downing #coffee


Some years back I was deeply engrossed in reading a number of cowboy memoirs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, doing research for the historical western romance I was writing.  I was amused to discover the number of everyday products the men mentioned consistently, some of which have now gone from the shelves.  There was Sapolio soap powder, Eagle Brand milk (still going strong) and, as any western historian will know, Arbuckles’ for coffee.  Ike Blasingame, in his Dakota Cowboy, (University of Nebraska Press, 1958)  gives Arbuckles’ more than a passing mention; he describes the chuck wagon and “A flat-sided coffee grinder was bolted to the side of the wagon, handy to reach, for in those days our coffee was made from freshly ground coffee beans.  Most all outfits used the famous Arbuckle brand.  It came in huge burlap bags holding one hundred one-pound packages of whole beans which were ground in the mill as needed.  I remember the stick of candy in each package, as well as a coupon, good for dozens of premiums—handkerchiefs, lace curtains, shears, Torrey razors, and jewelry of all descriptions, including wedding rings.”
So, what’s the story behind the “Coffee That Won the West” and what’s  become of it?
Right up through the Civil War, coffee was primarily sold ‘green’ and had to be roasted by the consumer.  On the range,  this was done in a skillet over the campfire or, at home,  in a wood burning stove, and it had to be done in small batches:  while green coffee beans could be stored indefinitely, roasted beans were subject to oxidation, leaving the beans rancid within a couple of weeks.  Furthermore, such individual roasting made for inconsistency, and one burnt bean could ruin an entire batch. Beans sold by grocers pre-roasted were subject to not only this inconsistency but also to mixed quality, and to the vagaries of the grocers’ scales.
The family grocery business of Arbuckles’ was established in Pittsburgh in 1859.  John Arbuckle dropped out of college to join the firm, which later, in 1865, included his brother Charles. His first innovation was to pack roasted coffee beans in 1-lb. packages, ready for the customer.  In 1871, the Arbuckles Bros. Co. was formed, and moved to New York.  John Arbuckle then went on to invent an egg and sugar glaze that “closes the pores of the coffee, and thereby all the original strength and aroma are retained.” (From the back of an Arbuckles’ trade card, circa 1890s). Packed in l lb. packages, the coffee was an instant hit and Arbuckles’ Ariosa Coffee was born.  By the 1880s, Arbuckles’ was the largest coffee importer in the world.
Part of their success was due to their marketing innovations.  The bags of coffee were packed in sturdy crates, which eventually found their use in grocery store shelving and other impromptu uses such as repairing homes for the Navajo in AZ.  Now collectible, one crate that survived intact recently sold at auction for $300.  The bags themselves had an attractive, bright red and yellow label, and contained a peppermint stick; this proved to be a means by which Cookie could bribe cowboys to grind the beans.  Arbuckles’ was also the first, in 1873, to advertise coffee on a full color handbill.  And best promotions of all were the coupons, as Ike Blasingame mentions above, along with trade cards.  The trade cards were works of art in themselves, and the different series included all the US states, countries of the world, humorous sketches, patriotic scenes, and maps.
The reverse side could be anything from an ordinary postcard backing to advertising slogans, recipes or a picture of the factory as above.  Now collectors’ items, they are often available on eBay, and a cookbook of the recipes has also been released.
While the Arbuckle Bros. diversified into other areas of commerce, including sugar refining, and owned a ranch in WY as well, it was as coffee magnates that they were primarily known.  When 20th Century improvements in packaging made the glazing of beans unnecessary, the company continued to blend premium coffees.  John Arbuckle developed a ‘Yuletide’ blend that was eventually marketed as Yuban, now owned by Kraft Foods.  Sometime after John Arbuckle’s passing in 1912, the company was sold on to C.W. Post of cereal fame, eventually becoming part of General Foods.
But the Arbuckles’ story doesn’t end there.  In 1974, Pat and Denney Willis decided to start a company in order to provide their restaurants with coffee of a consistently good quality.  They took on a salesman named Ken Arbuckle who claimed to be descended from the Arbuckle Brothers—and so Arbuckles’ Ariosa Coffee was resurrected.  Now located in Tucson, it still comes with a peppermint stick inside the bright red and yellow 1 lb. packages, and cowboys today can still say ‘they ain’t worth shootin’ ‘til they’ve had their Arbuckles’.
To read more about my coffee-drinking cowboys, please visit me at:

Twitter:  @andidowning


Anonymous said...

Thanks again, cowgirls, for having me. Always a pleasure.

Rolynn Anderson said...

You had me at COFFEE! Andi, what an interesting history. And why, oh why don't more products come with prizes? Especially surprises like in the Cracker Jack boxes. The peppermint stick for rewarding bean grinders was a neat tidbit from history. I'm a nut job about coffee...must grind my own, as well. These cowboys had some good coffee sense, by cracky!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

As always, Andi, you know you're stuff! What an interesting post. Who knew so much went into making a pot of coffee back in the day. I love the detail about the candy treat. I even looked up Arbuckle Ariosa Coffee after reading your post--thinking about buying some.

Ginger Jones Simpson said...

I fixed the name. Sorry if referred to you as Andrew. I've shared and taken responsibility for the mistake...I'm a dolt, what can I say. Enjoyed your post and hope you won't the error against me.


Anonymous said...

Ginger, no problem, Spellcheck often does the same.
Rolynn, I see you say you must grind your own, but what about roasting your own like in the old days--what a job for a good cup of Joe!
Patti, if you do buy Arbuckles, let me know how it is. I have to admit--and this is terrible in light of what I've just written--I'm more of a tea drinker but I do have one cup of coffee a day, and it usually has to be Colombian. Well, my daughter is marrying a Colombian so what can I do?

Anonymous said...

Good post. It's surprised me how many western authors never heard of Arbuckles.

Anonymous said...

Really Charlene? I think maybe some authors just like cowboys and don't think about the history of the west.

Hebby Roman said...

What an interesting post! As writers, we seldom give these everyday items much importance or notice. But knowing these kind of details must help to "ground" your stories.