Coffee came to America as early as the late 1600s. By the mid-19th century, Manhattan was the green coffee capital of America, home to dozens of wholesale coffee brokers and coffee roasters.
Soon after the Civil War, the beans spilled across the river into Brooklyn, due to this city’s huge capacity for storage and processing. Brooklyn’s vast waterfront piers became the landing place for the coffees of the world.
Brooklyn’s largest coffee company belonged to brothers John and Charles Arbuckle, originally from Pittsburgh. They also left us several great additions to Brooklyn’s architectural legacy.
Photo via New York History Walks
The Arbuckle Family History
Perhaps it was the water — or, more likely, a combination of Scottish drive and determination and pure coincidence — but Allegheny, Pennsylvania, produced several late-19th-century industrial giants.
Charles and his younger brother John were the children of a successful Allegheny woolen textile mill owner and his wife. John was born in 1839.
Allegheny was home to a large Scottish population, most of whom were weavers and textile-mill folk. This trade had brought the family of another Scot to Allegheny — that of a boy named Andrew Carnegie.
Young John Arbuckle was a classmate of another future industrial giant — Henry Phipps, later known as the “Coke King.” (That’s steel production, by the way.) The two boys sat next to each other in class. Andrew Carnegie was in the same school, in another classroom.
Because his family had money, John Arbuckle went to college — unlike Andrew Carnegie, who had to support his family while still a child.
Meanwhile, in 1859, his brother Charles, along with his uncle Duncan McDonald and friend William Roseburg, organized McDonald & Arbuckle, a wholesale grocery business in Pittsburgh.
In 1860 they bought John into the business, and a few years later McDonald and Roseburg retired, leaving the new company, Arbuckles & Co., to the two young men. They were soon one of the largest and most successful grocery businesses in the city.
Arbuckle Coffee shipping box. Photo via eBay
The Early Days of Arbuckle Coffee
One of the items the brothers dealt in was coffee. For many households, especially those outside of large cities, coffee was purchased as raw green beans, which were roasted on the stove by the homemaker — but the green beans often rotted before they could be roasted.
This process was wasteful and time consuming, and John, who had become obsessed with coffee, thought they could do it better. They could sell its pre-roasted ground coffee in small bags, ready for consumption.There would be no mess and no waste.
John’s first patent, issued in 1868, was for a process of glazing the beans using a sugar and egg coating. This sealed the pores, trapping in the flavor and aroma. It took him another 35 years to invent what he felt was the perfect method of roasting.
His huge roaster suspended the beans in superheated air, not allowing any of the beans to actually touch the surface of the heated iron containers during roasting. This process was patented too.
In the meantime, by 1865, John had achieved the best roast possible for the day, and his beans were ground and packaged in small bags with original packaging and artwork.
Believe it or not, his idea was met with skepticism by his brother, as well as derision by his competitors, who called his packaging in “little bags, like peanuts” a ridiculous idea.
Early Ariosa ad, 1873. Photo via All About Coffee by William Ukers
He wasn’t the first to sell packaged ground coffee — that would be New York coffee merchant Lewis Osborn — but the Arbuckles were the first to become a household name with recognized packaging.
The entire country was soon clamoring for Ariosa coffee, the first national coffee brand, launched nationwide in 1873.
Realizing that it was better for the business to have an office and factory in Manhattan, where his coffee was coming from anyway, John moved north while Charles kept the business going in Pittsburgh. But the New York coffee business grew so much that Charles also had to move here, leaving the Pittsburgh office to employees.
By the end of the 1870s, they had jettisoned all of their other grocery business and changed their company’s name to Arbuckle Brothers as coffee dealers and roasters.
In 1865, they had a single roaster machine, but by 1881 they had 85 roasters in both Pittsburgh and New York. The business had not even begun to peak.
Photo via All About Coffee by William Ukers
The Brooklyn Arbuckles
John Arbuckle moved his operations from Manhattan to the Brooklyn waterfront in 1881, in what is now Dumbo. His coffee came into port and was stored at the Empire Stores, near Fulton Ferry.
John Arbuckle and his wife Mary moved to a rather modest row house at 82 Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights. In 1881 the family legally adopted a child, 8-year-old Edward Nelson Green, “buying” the boy for a dollar in court. The child’s biological father, Warren Green, gave up his parental rights and Edward took the name Arbuckle.
By 1886, he had architect Montrose W. Morris adding an extension and making interior changes to the house.
In 1883, Arbuckle had a six-story warehouse building built on John Street, near Jay Street. This was the first of many factory and warehouse buildings the company would buy or build.
1880s advertising postcard. Photo via New York History Walks
Arbuckle’s waterfront buildings enabled him to have the ships bearing his coffee from Brazil and elsewhere dock right outside his facilities. The coffee could be offloaded and quickly sent to his roasters, grinders and packagers.
Henry Stiles would write in his History of Kings County that in 1883, Arbuckle had “500 hands, 48 roasting cylinders in operation each day, and 32 all night, each cylinder of copper, with 300 lbs. capacity, and taking 35 minutes to roast; 2,500 sacks of coffee, of 130 lbs. each are roasted, and 12 car-loads of ground goods shipped per day.”
In 1887, Montrose Morris was called on once again, this time to design and build a much larger mansion for the Arbuckles, at 315 Clinton Avenue in the heart of Clinton Hill. This mansion still stands, and is one of the finest mansions on “The Hill.”
Things were going so well that in 1891, E.S. Yergerson — an artist and recent interior decorator to the White House — approached Arbuckle and sold him on redecorating his house. A consummate salesman, Yergerson told Arbuckle that his $20,000 upgrade ($519,000 today) was necessary.
“Mr. Arbuckle,” he said, “I might be able to put three or four figures over my name, but you can put six or seven over yours. Now your wife wants these decorations, and you have only one life to live, and you can’t take anything away with you.”
Arbuckle held up his hand and said, “Stop! Give me the paper, I’ll sign.” He later asked Yergerson, “What will you take a year to sell coffee for me?”
By the end of the 1890s, Arbuckle Brothers owned a large complex of building in Dumbo, and even had a railroad built to facilitate production and moving product. It was the largest coffee company in America.
But there was trouble a-brewing. And it involved sugar — coffee and sugar. What could go together better? Not in business. The story of the John Arbuckle concludes next time.
Photo by Suzanne Spellen
[Top photo of Empire Stores in 1936: Bernice Abbott via Museum of the City of New York]