The capitalist origin of the break or coffee break

The capitalist origin of the break or coffee break

Drinking coffee is for many a small everyday pleasure that has become a necessity for those who need caffeine to perform every day. Rare is the work space that does not have at least one coffee machine or vending available to its employees, and the coffee break has become institutionalized as part of the working day. A rest that was born from the hand of the capitalist system itself to stimulate the productivity of its workers.

Much praised are the benefits for the body and psychological well-being of taking those 15 minutes a day to take a break and rekindle energy with a coffee, both in quiet solitude and in company. A short break clears the mind and tasting this drink, with its freshly made aroma, generates pleasant sensations, adding the stimulating power of caffeine and its ability to combat fatigue or drowsiness.

That is precisely what the American was looking for. Phil Greinetz when, in the 1940s, he established in his factory the coffee break of 15 minutes twice a day between their male employees, or more specifically, female employees. A decision that had little to do with concern for the welfare of its workers, and much to do with economic benefits.

Stop to produce more, but without charging

The outbreak of WWII left Phil Greinetz, owner of The Wigwam Weavers, a tie factory in Denver, faced the same problem as so many other businesses in America, the lack of manpower. With the call to the front of a large part of the young male population, it lost its best workers, those who had to handle the looms, a job that required considerable physical effort.

After unsuccessfully trying to hire older men, Greinetz then opted for incorporate more women in your factory. However, these did not perform in the same way that their previous workers had done, since they lacked the necessary resistance to endure a full shift at the same rate.

As Austine Sedgwick’s relates in her book Coffeelandreviewed by Michael Pollan in Atlantic, the businessman then summoned the entire company to discuss the problem; the template suggested to be able to enjoy two breaks a day in which they also had coffee.

American coffee

Greinetz agreed and soon verified that, indeed, the pace of work improved considerably. The 15-minute breaks for coffee, in the morning and in the afternoon, were imposed as part of the day, but not included in it. That is, Greinetz imposed the breaks mandatory but refusing to pay for those 30 minutes of daily break.

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If there is benefit, break is paid

The staff of The Wigwam Weavers did not protest -they were not in the financial situation to make too many demands-, but Greinetz had the misfortune to find himself in the summer of 1955 with a wage hours inspector from the state Department of Labor.

The inspector, according to the magazine Time that echoed the news that year, warned him that those breaks should be paid, because “As soon as they walk through your door, they are fulfilling their working time”. Greinetz refused, and the Department of Labor took the matter to the Colorado District Court, which ruled in his favor.


The state attorneys then resorted to higher instances. In 1956, a federal appeals court agreed with them, ruling that since coffee breaks “promote greater efficiency and lead to higher output,” benefits both the company and the workers and, therefore, should be counted as paid work time.

Already a few years before the expression coffee break (break/coffee break) had entered the popular language through, of course, a advertising campaign. The Pan-American Coffee Bureau (Pan American Coffee Office), a trade group organized by Central American growers popular at the time for its print and television advertisements, made it part of its most famous slogan.

Pan American

“Give yourself a coffee-break… and get what coffee gives to you.”

That is, “give yourself a coffee break… and receive what coffee gives you.” In other words, don’t skip that break to take advantage and have a coffee and so you can continue to perform at your best in your work. At least, let it be charging.

Images | Unsplash – Mid-Century Press
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