Maxwell House Coffee Tin from about 1955-1965 (Tennessee State Museum Collection)
by Grace Allen
Did you know coffee beans are actually green? They get their brown color from being roasted! As a kid, you may not drink coffee. I bet you know someone that does. Your parents or your teacher may drink it every morning. Today, most of the coffee you see in stores is already roasted and ground. This was not the case before 1900. Most people bought green coffee beans and prepared them at home. This all changed with a man from Nashville. He turned his hobby of making the perfect cup of coffee into a business.
One day, Joel Cheek quit his job to start the Nashville Coffee and Manufacturing Company. He was one of the only people selling roasted coffee. He believed his product was better quality than the other options out there. He made sure the coffee got to the customer within a week of it being made. That way it was always fresh and delicious.
Maxwell House Coffee Paper Tin (Tennessee State Museum Collection)
Joel set up a factory in Nashville to make his coffee. That way he had a steady supply of it to sell. Many factories were starting to be built in Nashville and other parts of Tennessee. This was part of the push for industrialization in the South after the Civil War. Places offered incentives like cheap labor and lower taxes for businesses to open in their region. By 1890, factories were making more money than farms in Tennessee. Nashville was a great place for Joel Cheek to start his company.
The Maxwell House Hotel in 1865 (Tennessee State Museum Collection)
One of his first big customers was the Maxwell House Hotel. The hotel bought some of his coffee to serve in their dining room. Supposedly, the customers loved it so much they demanded that the hotel keep selling it. Joel named his coffee brand Maxwell House after the hotel in Nashville, where this happened. President Theodore Roosevelt stayed at Maxwell House in 1907. People said he called the coffee, “good to the last drop.” Most likely, he didn’t actually say this, but the story became famous. It was even used in ads.
Maxwell House Coffee became so popular that Mr. Cheek built other plants in Texas, Florida, and Virginia. He built in other places because he wanted his coffee to be as fresh as possible. He also made sure there were enough customers who wanted to buy his coffee in every place he wanted to sell. He knew he would be successful if he had loyal buyers.
Maxwell House Coffee Tin (Tennessee State Museum Collection)
At that point, Maxwell House Coffee was only found in the South. Later, Joel decided to bring his coffee to New York City. He built a factory in New York and paid so much for advertisements that it set a record. The ads cost $1,100,000! The ads made people want to buy Maxwell House Coffee. They created a demand for his coffee. It worked and the company continued to grow. Eventually, Joel Cheek and his other partners sold the company after a successful career.
Letter from Joel Cheek on Company Stationary (Tennessee State Museum Collection)
One of Joel Cheek’s family members went on to build a home in Nashville called Cheekwood with the money he got from selling the business. Today it is open to the public and known as Cheekwood Botanical Gardens and Museum of Art. Unfortunately, the Maxwell House hotel, where the coffee got its name, burned down in the 1960’s. Even though the hotel is gone, you can still buy Maxwell House coffee in just about any store today!
Supply – The amount of an item or product available.
Demand – The need or desire for an item or product.
Industrialization – an increase in factories used to make products.
Quality – How good or bad a product is.
Incentives – Benefits or rewards for doing a certain thing.
Market – A specific place or group of people to which something is sold.
Advertisements – Things like commercials or announcements that get people to buy a certain item.
What color are coffee beans before roasting?
Where did Maxwell House Coffee get its name?
Why did Joel Cheek build factories in new locations?
If you were trying to sell coffee what are some ways that you could make people want to buy it?
SSP.06 Develop geographic awareness by: Understanding relationships between people, places, and resources
1.04 Give examples of products (goods) that people buy and use.
1.06 Distinguish how people are consumers and producers of goods and services.
2.04 Examine different types of producers and consumers in the U.S.
2.06 Analyze how supply and demand influences production.
2.09 Explain why and how producers advertise to sell a product or service.
3.16 Describe how scarcity, supply, and demand affect the prices of products.
5.01 Explain the need for the South’s move toward industrialization after the Civil War.
RI.KID.3 Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
VAU.6 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
Grace Allen is an Educator at The Tennessee State Museum.