Coffee Grinding Mills
Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. XII No. 4, December 1959
By Laurence A. Johnson
“Though thou shouldest bray ( beat small) a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will his foolishness not depart from him.” – The Book of Proverbs, xxvii, 22
On April 27, 1958, I was the guest of Mr. Edward H. Pinto, at his home and Museum of Wooden Bygones, Oxhey Woods House, near Northwood, Middlesex, England. Mr. Pinto is well known in America as the author of Treen or Small Woodware Throughout the Ages. We discussed his I 7th, 18th and 19th century coffee grinders (shown in figure one) that were on display in the museum and he gave me permission to use the picture and to quote from his article in the British Antiques Review, spring 1951 issue, “Wooden Mortars and Grinders.”
The quotation from the Book of Proverbs was used by Mr. Pinto in his article and he wrote that there are “three methods of reducing a solid to a powder by pounding with a pestle in a mortar, by grating or rasping the solid against a rough surface, or by grinding with wheels” – all go back many thousands of years.
The first two methods must have come before the third, but which of the two was the pioneer method we shall never know, because nature in the raw provides man with the choice of either. The quotation heading this article sufficiently proves the antiquity of mortars. The principle involved is so simple and primitive that doubtless a large, naturally hollow length of sturdy stick must often have done duty for pounding before the making of pestles and mortars became a specialized craft. Likewise a course slab of rock provided a ready-made rasp or grater.”
The following is taken from a card explaining the grinders shown in figure one:
“Coffee grinders: when first introduced into England, coffee was brayed (ground) in a mortar, but coffee grinders were made at least as early as 1665. The specimens, left to right, show the evolution of coffee grinders from the late 17th to the mid-19th century. Until about 1800, the majority of grinders were made by turners from ligum vitae. Usually they were constructed in four parts: the lid, often shaped as a finial; the feed; the grinding chamber; and the compartment for the ground coffee, which may be a well or a drawer, which may act as a measure, the handle, made to fold up inside.” (Starting at top, reading from left to right)
1. Lignum vitae, from Hurstmonceux, Sussex, English, circa 1680.
2. Lignum vitae with brass bands, English, circa 1700.
3. A very rare specimen, hollowed from a piece of burry maple. All of the mouldings are worked on the solid, not applied. The base, lid, rim and rings are steel. It may be English or Dutch and is dated 1706.
4. Italian, inlaid with brass pique, circa 1700.
5. A Lignum vitae mortar, turned as a classical urn, English, circa 1750.
6. An English type, popular about 1765, it is shown on trade cards of that period.
7. The same as #6.
8. Coffee grinder, English, circa 1900.
9. A novel grinder, simulating a stoppered bottle. It may have been a novelty made for the 1851 Exhibition.
A search of the British patents in the United States Patent Office in Washington, D. C. reveals that the first patent for grinding mills that mentions coffee was number 1214, issued March 22, 1779, to Richard Dearman, Birmingham, Country Warrick, ironmaster. It states in part:
“NOW KNOW YE, that in compliance with the said proviso, 1, the said Richard Dearman, do hearby declare that my said Invention of the Entire New Method of Making Mills for Grinding Malt, Wheat, Barley, Beans, Pease, Groats, Rice, Indian Corn, Coffee, Pepper, Seeds, Drugs and all Kinds of Spices in the same Manner those Articles are Ground upon what are commonly called Steel Mills, is described in the Manner following” (that is to say) “to form the grinding parts of the mills, or what is called the inside and outside thereof, melt iron in a furnace or crucible and cast the same in moulds, of a suitable shape and size for the different purposes they may be intended, then to soften them, in order to file the teeth to a proper edge, neal (anneal) them in a gradual heat till that be affected, afterwards harden the grinding parts of the mill with hooves, horns, or bones of animals, or morine salts, laid on grounds or lees of malt liquor, or other acid or glutinous matter. Heat in a furnace, muffle or open fire, and plunge them in water … ”
The first British patent for coffee grinders to include drawings with the specifications is British patent number 3916, issued May 23, 181 5, to Archibald Kenrick of West Bromfield, County Stafford. Figure 2 shows two of the mills in this patent. The specification in part, concerning the mill, figure one at the top of the picture stated:
“A is the hopper, into which the matter to be ground is introduced; B is the conical box, case, or barrel cut with teeth in the inside; D, the spout, through which the coffee or malt runs when ground; E is the spindle of the cutter with the handle F fixed upon the end of it … My improvements are the flaunch H, formed out of the same piece of metal with the box B, and by means whereof the mill can he attached to a firm support.”
The lower figure #4 in the picture, stated in part:
“Figure #4. is a section of what is called a box mill, to which my third improvement is applied, viz the socket R, at the large end of the box or barrel B, for the support of the spindle, is formed in the same solid piece of metal with the box or barrel, the socket or barrel in the cross bar at the lower end l made both to receive the lower end of the axle of the mill, and to contain by my regulating screw, by raisin!!: or falling to which the mill is adjusted to grind finer or coarser. This cross bar is fixed in the usual way by two screws. The external box or case M of the mill, together with the drawer N and the bason A, may be made of cast iron or of wood, as usual.” ( The word basin is spelled “bason”).
Note the similarity of the box to number 8 in Mr. Pinto’s collection.
ln my collection l have a mill (figure 3) that resembles in many ways the mill at the top of figure 2. On the little brass sign is the inscription “lncrease Wilson Best Quality New London.” The first patent issued in the United States for coffee mills was to Theodore Bruff, Sr.. of Maryland on January 8, 1798. The second was issued to Increase Wilson of New London, Connecticut on March 6, 1818. The date that Mr. Wilson made his mill is not known, however, it will still grind. Increase Wilson was born in Preston, Connecticut, on October 1, J 785 and died in Ne”· London, Connecticut December 1 8, 1861. After a good common school education he was sent to Plainfield Academy where he completed his studies. He had an early inclination for mechanics which was encouraged b)’ his father. ln 1809 he is mentioned in the land records as leasing a shop on Bradley (Potter) Street in New London. lt is not clear where he learned his first practical knowledge of mechanics, but there is a tradition that he learned the tin business of Joseph Sizer who had a shop on the same street. There is another tradition that his first effort for himself was in making tin cups and other utensils of tin which he sold to the National Government during the war of 1812. It is also told that at this time he only had one or two helpers and that his first power was a mule on a tread mill. The old newspapers of 1814 and 1815 show that he was making what is known as “light hardware.” About 1818 he bought a lot on State Street, built a three-story building, manufactured on the top floor and rented the second for offices. On the ground floor he had a store for his numerous products. He ran long advertisements specifying each article that he had for sale and at this time had a patent on a coffee mill. The start of Wilson’s Foundry was in 1825 when he bought a shop and lot on the west side of Union Street. In a short time he bought more land between State and Methodist Streets where he built many wooden buildings. He is credited as bringing the first stationary steam engine to New London and so, gone was the mule power. His sales and manufacturing increased until he was employing from 125 to 150 men. In early life he married Rachel Wright Fox of New Haven, who bore him five sons and six daughters. (Ed. Note – Increase Wilson) The Wilson Manufacturer was incorporated, January 12, 1855 with Wilson as president and Nathan Belcher as secretary. (Biographical information furnished by Miss Helen L. Fraser, Secretary to the New London, Connecticut Historical Society.)
As most of our patents prior to 1836 have either been lost or destroyed by fire, a search of the Journals of the Franklin Institute sheds some light to early improvements in coffee mills from the period 1828 to 1837.
“List of American patents issued in June, I 832, with remarks and exemplications by the editor. For an improvement in the Coffee Mill; Edmund Parker and Heman White, Meriden, New Haven County, Connecticut, June 22. This coffee mill is a modification of the cast iron vertical coffee mill most generally in use. There is, however, some difference in the mode of combining the parts and for these the patent is taken.” Journals of the Franklin Institute, vol. xi, page 25.
“For A Double Coffee Mill: Thomas W. Witherby, and Joseph Torrey, Milbury, Worcester County, Mass. July 17, 1832.
The difference between this mill and the cast iron vertical coffee mill used by most persons, consists in its being furnished with two revolving toothed nuts, covered by two corresponding shells, one handle serves to turn both and one regulating screw to set them. The hopper has a removable partition in it, allowing two different articles to be ground, without interferring with each other, or, of course, both may be used for the same article.” (ibid, page 98, number 18).
“For a Coffee Mill: Ami Clark, Berlin, Hartford County, Connecticut, July 20. We are told by this patentee that his improved coffee mill is made of cast iron, two shells, and axle or shaft and a crank. By turning to number 18, it will be seen that a patent was granted for a coffee mill which was ‘furnished with two revolving toothed nuts, covered by two corresponding shells,’ . it seems, however, that this last was not the original mill as the present patentee, whose papers have lain some weeks in the patent office, says that he does not claim the double mill heretofore invented and said to be patented by a person unknown, having shells with radiating teeth,” but he claims only the peculiar construction of his own by which double the work can be accomplished in a given portion of time. “We apprehend, however, that this double labour will be accomplished with the same degree of power, although something may be saved in this particular, as regards friction.” (ibid, page 100).
Patent number 243 was issued June 19, 1837, to Herman Twist of Meriden, Connecticut, shown in figure 4.
The specifications state in part: “A, represents the hopper made in two parts connected together by ears and bolts B, C, side plates between which the grinding cylinder revolves, being a continuation of the sides of the hopper; D, cross bar connecting the lower ends of the side plates together and through which a thumb screw E, passes for pressing the shell or concave toward the cylinder and regulating the distance between them for grinding coarser or finer. F, ears through which screw bolts pass for securing the mill to any convenient place. G, the grinding cylinder about an inch and a half in length and about two and a half inches in diameter having a shaft. H, about three inches in length passing through its center and through the side plates C, extending beyond the face of the front plate one inch and three-eights and is three-fourths of an inch in diameter, to which a crank I, is to be fitted in the usual manner. The other end of the shaft is three-eighths of an inch in diameter and forms a pivot or gudgeon passing through a corresponding hole in the plate.” … “A great advantage attending this improvement is that the substance ground is received at one side of the cylinder and as soon as thoroughly ground is discharged at the opposite side and is not as in common mills, carried around after it is ground and finally discharged by the pressure of the coarser materials and the increased motion of the cylinder and hence both time and labor are saved.”
Two very early mills are on display in the Smithsonian Institution. Figure 5 – ground coffee for Martha and George Washington at Mount Vernon and figure 6 was used in the Copp homestead, Stonington, Connecticut. Note the similarity of these to the Twist Mill, figure 4.
The mill shown in figure 7 is displayed beside my Wilson Mill in Johnson’s Old General County Store Museum. The small sign on the mill reads, “J and E Parker Pat. Feb. 7, 1860.” This was patent number 27,065 issued to John and Edmund Parker of Meriden, Connecticut. ln the patent they begin their list of specifications with the following: “Our improvements have for their object the simplifying of the construction, as well as increasing the efficacy and usefulness of the coffee mill for domestic purposes. As is well known, these implements are almost always to be used by persons of but little discretion, as servants, and therefore should be constructed as to avoid the possibility of being injured by careless handling: of adjusting, while, as they are required so generally as a household implement any improvement which reduces the cost of construction becomes of considerable importance.” This is the Edmund Parker mentioned as granted a patent with Herman White, both of Meriden, June 22, 1832 in the Journals of the Franklin Institute.
Edmund Parker had two brothers, Charles and John, and all three were at one time or the other manufacturing coffee mills as well as other items. John Parker was born August 30, 1805 and was licensed to preach when seventeen. He preached until 1839, when his voice failed and he entered into business with his brother, exmayor Charles Parker and he died of measles June 21, 1892. Edmund died April 19, 1866, aged 56 years, 2 months and ten days. Charles Parker, who lived to be 92 , was Meriden’s first mayor, and dominated the rest of his family in their city’s history. He was an energetic and versatile businessman, and his manufacturing enterprises were extensive. Because it is pertinent, you will find enclosed a copy of some material included in a 1906 history of Meriden concerning Charles Parker and his company. “For a few years, beginning 1833, his brother, Edmund Parker and Herman White were associated with him as partners, the firm was known as Parker and White. His brother retired in 1843 and Mr. White the year following.” … “On a portion of the land between Elm and High Streets, Charles Parker built a stone shop and in 1832 began the manufacture of coffee milk. His motive power was a blind horse, who propelled a pole sweep, which, hour after hour, and day after day, plodded around in a circle, which was the only power of the factory, until 1844, when the steam power introduced at the factory was the first used in Meriden. The Parker coffee mill, made in fully one hundred size and styles, have now been on the market for practically three-quarters of a century; when first made they were sold by the small peddler and are now shipped in carload lots to this and foreign countries.”
The Parker Company made scores of other items such as guns, spectacles etc. and employed 1500 men. (Biographical information from Miss Lillian N. Gerhardt, Reference Librarian of the Curtis Memorial Library, Meriden, Connecticut.)
Figure 8 shows the first advertisement on coffee mills in a trade paper that I have been able to find. It was published in the January 3, 1863, issue of The Grocer, London, England. Note the similarity to the Kenrick and Wilson Mills.
Figure 9 accompanied an article on “Corn and Coffee Mills” in the American Agriculturist, September, 1847. Note the beginning of placing the fly or balance wheels on the grinders. This was a great help for the grocer as without the flywheel one could not get up the necessary momentum to do an efficient job – how well, I know!
Figure 10 is an 1884 Lane Brothers catalog showing five types of mills including Beriah Swift’s patent, number 4,149, issued August 16, 1845. Note the similarity of the Swift Number 2 Side Mill in the picture to the mill, figure 63 in figure 9.
The mill shown in figure 11 is in my Old County Store Museum. It is patent number 152,655, issued June 20, 1874, to William J. & John G. Lane of Millbrook, New York. This is “The Swift Mill – Size ‘B,’ thirty inches high “with two 20 inch fly wheels.” $18. (page 16. 188+ Lane Bros. Catalog). This mill was in the George K. Graves general store at South Butler, New York, where the Johnson family began trading in 1848. It appeared in the store’s inventory of 1881 and was bought about 1876. The application for patent was filed January 6, 1873 and part of the specifications read: “Two balance wheels G and F are placed upon opposite sides of the standard, thus tending to keep the standard balanced … ” I believe this to be one of the first two-wheeled mills.
My pride and joy is the mill in figure 12, this carried patent number 159,517 and was issued to the Lane Brothers February 7, 1875. It is not dumpy looking as the one in figure 11, but built with some elegance like the London Coffee Mill shown on page 5, of the July 5, 1873 issue of the American Grocer shown in figure 13. This type of mill caused the American manufacturers to make more elegant ones and I have observed this in the 1877 catalog of the Enterprise Company. All the mills are graceful except the Enterprise mill shown in figure 14. This mill is under patent number 104,537 issued June 21, 1870 to John Gulick Baker of Philadelphia, Pa. I purchased this mill many years ago from Jason Bushnell of Vernon, Vermont and he informed me that he bought it from a farmer who was using it to grind grain. This mill might be for general use as are the ones in figure 9. It is now in the A. J. Bayless, Cracker Barrell General Store Museum, Phoenix, Arizona.
Throughout central New York there used to be many Lane and Enterprise mills. Both these companies have rather interesting histories. The Lane Company was started with the organization of the Swift Mill in 1845 in Millbrook, New York and from there was brought to Poughkeepsie, New York in 1882 by John G. and William J. Lane. This business was an outgrowth of Beriah Swift’s inventions and the Swift coffee, spice and drug mills were long a leading business. The Lanes married into the Swift family and that is how the Lane name came to be connected with the business. They were still making coffee mills through World War I, but after the depression which followed, the business declined and in 1928 they ceased making coffee mills and even destroyed the patterns. The company is now called Lanebro because there is another Lane Brothers in New York State and when the present group tried to incorporate they could not use the same name.
The Enterprise Company was rather famous for scores of household, drug and food store items and may have been one of the largest in their field. They sold out to Silex Company in 1957 and upon writing to Mr. M. Diamond of the Silex Company, he informed me that they did not retain any of the historical documents that were in Philadelphia, and suggested I write Mr. T. Henry Asbury, former president and grandson of the original founder. Again I was disappointed as Mr. Ashbury wrote me that they did not retain the old files, and after the Silex Company sold some of the lines, such as coffee mills, they disposed of the old records.
However, Mr. Asbury did inform me that the Enterprise M1anufacturing Company of Philadelphia, Pa., was incorporated September 8, 1866 and originated from the firm of Henry Asbury and Company. In I 870 they manufactured cast iron mechanical coin banks in an effort to get a fast start and production on a foundry they had opened that year.
The thought occurred to me when trying to find out information about this company that this might be a good project for the Association to attempt to get these companies with early histories to either safeguard their old records or to turn them over to some historical society where they would be available to students of early American history of industries.
It is impossible to list all the many companies that were active in the coffee mill field. Many Elgin Mill, were used in the middle west and far west. A letter from Miss Anna H. Carlson, Asst. Reference Librarian, The Gail Borden Public Library, Elgin, Illinois, stated in part: “The Elgin National Coffee Mill was made in Elgin by C. H. Woodruff Foundry in about the 1890’s … Woodruff and Edwards, Incorporated, as it is now known … is over 90 years old.” .. . “We called the office … Mr. Edwards said all the records on the Elgin National Coffee Mill were destroyed in the fire of 1918 … ” “He did remember that manufacture of the mill was discontinued in 1917. He also remembered that the William Wrigley Company, the chewing gum firm, was their largest customer. The mills were given to the grocers as premiums for selling the most boxes of their chewing gum”!
One of the most interesting inventions I ran across while working on this subject was the patent issued to Dewitt C. Warner of Chicago, Illinois, January 31, 1871, number 111,406. This was for “Improvements in Combined Coffee-Mills and Apple-Parers.” This is shown in figure 15. There is a boy after my own heart. what can go better with a cup of coffee than a nice piece of apple pie!
Figures 16 and 17 are from the Spring and Fall, 1903, Sears Roebuck catalog, number 112, pages 550 and 531. On page 550 are four types of the new wall mills which appeared by this date, to have become more and more popular. It is interesting to note the 19c “Side Coffee Mill” shown on page 551 of this catalog. (Column 2, H for mill) This appeared for the last time in 1904, Spring and Fall issue.