“How to Say Good Morning”: Mr. Coffee, 1972

 Exhibit / February 19, 2020 

Object Name: Mr. Coffee
Maker and Year: North American Systems and others,1972-present
Object Type: TV commercials for home coffee maker
Video Source: YouTube (Bionic Disco/Beta MAX)
Description (Michael Grasso):

The state of play in home coffee brewing in America during the early postwar period offered very little opportunity for a good cup of joe. The electric percolator, long the choice for home brewing, would often overheat and burn the coffee, or send foul, bitter-tasting grounds back into the brew. Individual-size European coffee makers like the French press and the Moka pot gained in popularity after World War II but were still mostly niche products purchased by European immigrants (or Americans with European pretentions). Instant coffee predated the war but became one of the many broader consumer products that gained market share thanks to the same developments in wartime food preservation that brought frozen concentrated orange juice to American breakfast tables. So if an American coffee-drinker wanted a quality cup of drip coffee before 1970, he or she would visit a restaurant or diner for a cup from the new, reliable filtered drip-brew coffee maker, Bunn-O-Matic. But most Bunn coffeemakers in the 1960s were built to churn out dozens of pots of coffee a day, with large carafes and multiple hobs, putting them well out of the price and practicality reach of most consumers.

Making the drip filter coffee maker easy, compact, and affordable enough for home use was the task that a pair of coffee supply executives set for themselves at the outset of the 1970s. Samuel Glazer and Vincent Marotta of the Cleveland, Ohio company North American Systems saw the popularity of the big filter-drip industrial coffeemakers and wondered why they couldn’t have a cup like that at home. They lured two former Westinghouse engineers, Edmund Abel and Erwin Schulze, from their aeronautics and electrical engineering jobs to work on a coffeemaker that could deliver just that. The key was the heating element—too hot and it would simply duplicate the bitter efforts of the percolator; too cool and it wouldn’t actually brew the coffee. The new coffeemaker beat the percolator on taste and on speed; using gravity to drip 200-degree Fahrenheit water through grounds in a disposable filter could produce a modestly-sized pot of coffee in under a couple of minutes. Abel’s patent went on sale as “Mr. Coffee” in 1972, and the American public went for it in droves, with a million Mr. Coffee machines being sold in its first couple of years on the market.

A big key to Mr. Coffee’s appeal in these early years was thanks to Marotta’s dogged pursuit of one of his favorite sports icons as brand spokesman: the Yankee Clipper himself, Joe DiMaggio. So reclusive in the years since his retirement from baseball and the death of ex-wife Marilyn Monroe that he’d been enshrined in song, DiMaggio relented to Marotta’s eager call to become the Mr. Coffee pitchman (DiMaggio himself wasn’t even a caffeinated coffee drinker because of an ulcer; he preferred instant Sanka). The combination of an approachable brand name, an easy to understand set of operating instructions, and an avuncular, trustworthy celebrity face made Mr. Coffee a household name. Mr. Coffee came along at a time when, thanks to women entering the workplace, more and more men were being asked to make contributions in the home and especially the kitchen; with coffee historically being associated in America with hard-working men, Mr. Coffee and its soft-spoken yet macho pitchman were culturally in the right place at the right time. Like many other home goods manufacturers, later owners of the Mr. Coffee brand would use its initial success to branch out into other products with not as famed or successful a brand career as the original. Nevertheless, Mr. Coffee’s ubiquity in the 1970s and ’80s led inevitably became fodder for pop culture parodies.

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