How This 130-Year-Old Kitchen Tool Holds My Family’s History

Milling over material culture in the kitchen.

July 12, 2023
Photo by Rocky Luten

I’ve never seen my grandmother drink a single sip of coffee. No pourover, fancy French press, or flavored brew will tempt her away from her cabinet of caffeine-free teas and herbal tisanes. Known for pulling tea bags out of her pocketbook at restaurants, she once even brought bags of her favorite tea across the Atlantic when I took her on a research trip to the tea-steeped English countryside. Meanwhile, my grandfather drinks his coffee black, all day long, and by the bucket. His coffee set-up—a small drip machine—is relegated to one slim corner counter with a canister or two of Folgers tucked in a small cabinet below. Between his minimal coffee gear and the prominent kettle, cozies, and tea strainers, my grandmother’s kitchen is clearly meant for making tea, which is why I’ve always found it strange that she kept an old wood-and-cast-iron, hand-cranked coffee bean grinder on display in the pass-through window.

The grinder has sat there for longer than I've been alive. Most of those years, I didn’t realize what it was, just another wood-and-metal antique blending in with the other rustic touches in my grandmother’s rooster-themed kitchen in North Texas. Now, as a food scholar with a specialty in food-related material culture—the study of the power and meaning of everyday objects—I see the same utensils and kitchen tools we touch and use multiple times a day with slightly different eyes.

We all have these objects in our homes and in our kitchens. Sometimes they serve a different purpose than originally intended—like a passed down pickle crock that now holds wooden spoons and spatulas—and other times we simply keep them around to remember the people and places to which they once belonged. Growing up, I thought the grinder was some kind of treasure box since my grandmother used the little drawer meant to collect coffee grinds as a catch-all for found objects: a little ceramic blue bird, safety pins, bells, marbles, a winding key for an old clock, and the tiniest crocheted doily. Ultimately, the coffee grinder was a treasure box, but of the historical sort.

Originally produced by the Arcade Manufacturing Company sometime in the late 1880s or 1890s, the coffee grinder first belonged to my great-great-grandmother Donna who was born in Bennington, Okla. in 1880. Just a few years later and two states away in Freeport, Ill., the Arcade Manufacturing Company was quickly becoming the major producer of coffee grinders for the entire country. The company made wall-mounted coffee mills as well as dozens of models of smaller box-style mills, including the grinder in my grandma’s kitchen, with names such as “Favorite” and “Imperial.” These box mills were fitted with metal hoppers on top of grooved metal grinders that, when activated with the hand crank, rotated against each other dispensing ground beans into a little wooden drawer below. Mills were not only practical for home coffee consumers, but decorative, too, featuring gold-stamped labels, polished wood, and cast-iron designs. By 1889, according to an issue of the Freeport Daily Bulletin from March of that year, Arcade shipped sixty-thousand mills across the nation and expected to “double their business within the next two or three years.”

By the end of the 19th century, coffee consumption in the United States was ubiquitous and growing stronger as factory and office work picked up steam, coffee trade expanded, and the beans and specialized coffee brewing tools became more widely available. It helped that the caffeinated brew was addictive, too.

The author's grandmother with their family's antique coffee grinder. Photo by KC Hysmith

Most 19th-century consumers bought coffee in small portions at their local grocery or general store where the beans would be ground up to order with a large cast-iron mill. For those living in rural areas or with limited access to these in-store mills, the advent of small, hand-cranked grinders changed the at-home coffee drinking experience. While I can’t quite make out the model number on my grandmother’s coffee grinder, thanks to research and appraisals published by antique collectors, I know this line isn’t too rare or collectable. Nevertheless, the Smithsonian National Museum of American History has a similar Arcade Manufacturing Company coffee grinder model in their collections, which serves as a testament to the importance of this humble little kitchen tool to American consumers.

According to writers Nina Luttinger and Gregory Dicum, authors of The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry from Crop to the Last Drop, the year from 1962 to 1963 “marked both the largest per capita and the largest absolute coffee consumption” in America. In the 1960s, while attending college in Edmond, Oklahoma, my grandmother was, in her own words, “a big coffee drinker.” They drank a brand called Cain’s, a local Oklahoma roaster, because it was cheap (around 65 cents for a one-pound bag, according to The Edmond Booster in October 20, 1960), and they drank it black because they could brew it “good and strong,” which helped them stay up late and study after their two young boys went to bed. My grandmother found the coffee grinder collecting dust in her mother-in-law’s (my great-grandmother’s) garage and realized she had found a helpful tool to support their coffee drinking habits. She took it home, cleaned it up, but never had the heart to use the grinder for its intended purpose for fear of messing it up.

In all likelihood, my grandmother would have had a hard time finding whole beans at the grocery store during the 1960s, as pre-ground and pre-portioned one-pound bags had become the standard for the average American consumer. Instead, the grinder became a treasure box, waiting for someone to unlock its hidden food histories that connected generations of coffee drinkers (and at least one tea drinker, too).

What's a kitchen relic from your family's history? Share in the comments!
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  • luvcookbooks
  • Carla Fisher
    Carla Fisher
Food Writer and Historian


luvcookbooks July 19, 2023
I have so many things from my parents’ kitchen. The chafing dish evokes an era. My mom would fill it with stock and put out platters of food to cook in the stock. I remember chrysanthemum petals as being very exotic in our small Wisconsin town. My mom loved adventure and exploring different cultures. I miss her.
Carla F. July 12, 2023
Thank you for the great walk down memory lane. Your reference to not being able to buy whole bean coffee sent me back to my six-year-old self standing in the aisle at our local A&P filling my lungs with the lovely, rich scent of their beautiful, shiny coffee beans. I remembered their Eight O'Clock brand (in a red bag), but I had to go online to find the names of the others--Red Circle, in the yellow bag, and Bokar, in the black bag. I won't go into my childhood caffeination: suffice it to say, I was drinking espresso and black tea before I started first grade.