Arbuckle’s Coffee & John Arbuckle

You might have heard stories about trail coffee during the time of the cattle drives. The coussie would often be heard to announce that the Arbuckle’s is hot. Arbuckle’s Coffee was probably the most popular brand of coffee on the trail. We can thank John Arbuckle for the technology that made it much easier to prepare a good pot of coffee. Here’s his story and how his vision made making coffee widely available and easier to brew.

John Arbuckle, for nearly fifty years the honored dean of the American coffee trade, pioneer package-coffee man, some-time coffee king, sugar merchant, philanthropist, and typical American, came from fine, rugged Scotch stock. He was the son of a well-to-do Scottish woolen-mill owner in Allegheny, Pa., where he was born, July 11, 1839. He often said he was raised on skim milk. He received a common school education in Pittsburgh and Allegheny. He and Henry Phipps, the coke and steel head, are said to have occupied adjoining desks in one of the public schools, Andrew Carnegie being at that time in another grade of the same school. He had a strong bent for science and machinery; and, although he chose the coffee instead of the steel business for his career, the basis of his success was invention. He also attended Washington and Jefferson College at Washington, Pennsylvania.

The Arbuckle business was founded at Pittsburg, in 1859, when Charles Arbuckle, his uncle Duncan McDonald, and their friend William Roseburg, organized the wholesale grocery firm of McDonald & Arbuckle. One year later John Arbuckle, the younger brother of Charles Arbuckle, was admitted to the firm, and the firm name was changed to McDonald & Arbuckle’s (plural). McDonald and Roseburg retired from the firm a few years later, leaving the business in the hands of the two youthful, hopeful, and energetic brothers, who under the firm name of Arbuckle’s & Co., soon made their firm one of the important wholesale grocery houses in Pennsylvania. Although little thinking at the time that their greatest success was to be achieved in coffee, and that a new idea of one of the partners—that of marketing roasted coffee in original packages—would make their name familiar in every hamlet in the country, yet the first two entries in the original day-book of McDonald & Arbuckle’s record purchases of coffee.

Prior to the 1860’s, coffee was not generally sold roasted or ground, ready for the coffee pot. Except in the big cities, most housewives bought their coffee green, and roasted it in their kitchen stoves as needed. John Arbuckle, having become impressed with the wasteful methods and unsatisfactory results of this kitchen roasting, had already begun his studies of roasting and packaging problems, studies that he never gave up. How, first to roast coffee scientifically, and then to preserve its freshness in the interval between the roaster and the coffee pot, continued to be an absorbing study until his death. The importance of his work may be illustrated by reference to his first patent. In 1868, he patented a process of glazing coffee, which had for its object the preservation of the flavor and aroma of coffee by sealing the pores of the coffee bean.

At the same time it is just as important to recognize his marketing acumen. The preserved coffee beans were packaged in 1-lb bags which if considered alone is not significant. What is impressive is the fact that on the bag a coupon was printed that the consumer could redeem for a few pennies and in turn the merchant would send the collected coupons to Arbuckle’s for an additional monetary redemption. Another very special feature was the inclusion of peppermint candy stick in the bag. Arbuckle’s is credited with establishing the concept of coupons and in product treats. It was not unusual to see cowboys on the trail eagerly volunteer to assume the coffee grinding duties for the pleasure of receiving the peppermint stick for his effort.

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