Staring into this liquid mini-pool of magic, who would think that the odiferous brew was once considered a challenge to the evils of another liquid served in saloons? In the epic social battle between those characterized as “teetotalers” and those addicted to “demon rum,” the former would gain a modicum of success, but the latter would prevail.
Nonetheless, among the varied protests to alcohol, coffee along with its relatives … tea and cocoa … certainly was a valiant and savory alternative to beer and spirits.
Here’s the story.
Today, minus its crusader quality, various establishments continue to serve what is termed coffee—too often mixed in a jumble of words for additives. Attracting customers for a variety of reasons, some quite sociable as did its predecessors, the denizens of coffee shops are most likely unaware of its quiet historical journey.
So mused Ernest Fox who hailed from England where coffee houses were a booming business operated for profit. Fox’s vision capitalized on the camaraderie of the customers but with some unique caveats. If Queenie Warden and others of the San Luis Obispo Women’s Club advocated for public drinking fountains to slate any thirsts as an option to beer, so, too, coffee and an inexpensive meal were stalwart champions for sobriety.
“To establish houses of refreshment, recreation, and amusement, where no intoxicating liquors, cigars or tobacco in any form, shall be sold,” he proposed as one of the most successful managers of the Stockton establishment. Furthermore, any profits would be used for the benefit of the customers.
By the turn of the century, there were success stories with clubs in Santa Clara, Petaluma, and Bakersfield. Highlighting its own success, the largest Coffee Club in Los Angeles reported its operations were conducted from “two club-rooms visited daily by from 1,000 to 1,500 men who come to lunch, to read, to play checkers, chess, or other innocent games, or to enjoy a social chat. It is truly a club for the club less and a home for the homeless.”
In an interesting addition to meals in an alcohol-free club, newspapers and magazines were also provided for leisure reading. San Jose’s club included “twenty-two current magazines, the daily papers of San Jose and San Francisco, and many excellent books.” The only branch of the San Luis Obispo City Public Library (1897- 1973) was listed as the Coffee Club beginning in 1914. Undoubtedly, a Congregational minister, one of the founders of the local coffee club and important library supporter, Rev. George Willett, was a major influence in coordinating the partnership.
Why not simply go to the library to read? The response: “Watch that group of men and see how perfectly at home they are; this is their club; they would not be at home in the public library with their working-clothes on.”
An ancestor of today’s ubiquitous fast-food chains, a major attraction was inexpensive fare. Besides non-alcoholic beverages, the menu could include doughnuts, a sandwich, beans, cold cereal, Malta Vita —“the perfect food”—pie and fruit. There was minimal cooking. Combining socialization as well as reading materials, the lunchroom would be a “positive attraction, taking away that air of stiffness which is inevitable in an ordinary reading-room,” claimed advocates. “This arrangement also saves having extra help. Everything is arranged for quick service.”
There was a fervor of the convinced as the founders contemplated the new, powerful tool in the social combat with the immoral and devastating evils of excessive alcohol consumption. Chartered for fifty years, the new temperance organization barely made fifteen.
Unlike the companion crusade to include women as voters, temperance attempted to tamper with individual choices through legislation. Such social engineering is quite often doomed to failure. The Coffee Club Associations certainly had a temperance goal but allowed the individual to make a friendly—and tasty—choice. With the War to End All Wars (WWI) behind the country, in a national exuberance of success, the temperance legions’ ultimate legal victory was in the18th Constitutional Amendment on January 16, 1919.
The celebration was not universal. Worthy of its own story, a new word “speakeasy” entered the popular vocabulary. From bathtub gin to moonshine to illegal smuggling, the Roaring Twenties has become its own historical era as flappers redefined femininity by relishing in doing what they were not supposed to do. “Demon rum” did not disappear but merely retreated into the shadows of society.
Along with assuring the right of women to vote in the 19th Amendment (ratified on August 8, 1920), and ending with the catastrophic Great Depression, America had turned a landmark corner in its development.
Nonetheless, the Coffee Club barely had time to celebrate Prohibition or women’s suffrage. Another “demon” caused its demise. In the early hours of October 3, 1920, “Demon Fire” left the Coffee Club without a home. Unlike 15 years before, there were not sufficient crusaders willing to help resurrect the former temperance temple disguised as a social center serving coffee and Malta Vita …the perfect food.