Chances are if you’re reading this at work, you either have a cup of coffee sitting on your desk or you’re planning on grabbing one in an hour or so. Like commuting and cubicles, coffee breaks are a staple of office culture—one that’s so ingrained in employees' lives that it’s hard to know where our obsession with all things Starbucks ends and the tradition began.
Why do we take coffee breaks? Explanations abound. According to The Atlantic's City Lab blog, they’re thanks to unions. In the early 1900s, factories implemented eight-hour workdays and designated rest hours. During break times, workers would sip the bitter brew to recharge before starting another shift. Soon after, street-side coffee stands became common in urban areas, and coffee counters and machines popped up across the country. Eventually, quick, caffeinated catch-ups with friends and colleagues became a normal part of daily routine.
However, the residents of Stoughton, Wisconsin aren't convinced. The tiny town argues that its early immigrant workers didn’t just take coffee breaks—they invented them. In 1880, a tobacco warehouse hired local Norwegian women to help with tobacco stripping. The warehouse was close to their homes, allowing them to periodically leave and check on their children, prepare food, and grab a cup of coffee. Today, the town honors this history by hosting an annual Coffee Break Festival.
In the early 1900s, coffee breaks became an official employee benefit. (Several companies argue that they're the first to have instated the perk.) In 1952, the “coffee break” was officially coined when the Pan-American Coffee Bureau launched an ad campaign telling customers to “Give yourself a Coffee-Break—and Get What Coffee Gives You." And a little over a decade later, the coffee break finally entered national discourse when the United Auto Workers and the Big Three (Chrysler, Ford, and GM) negotiated a 12-minute coffee break.
Other cultures have their own versions of the coffee break, which Americans might have adopted from immigrants over the past century. For instance, Germans have kaffeeklatsch, in which they gather and discuss the day’s events over a cup of joe. In Sweden, workers enjoy coffee breaks called fika about two times a day—once in the morning, again in the afternoon. And in England, there’s tea time.
Bottom line? No one quite knows the coffee break's true origins. But one thing's for sure: No matter who you are, it’s good for morale, productivity, and happiness to take some time off work and enjoy a hot, caffeinated beverage now and then.