There are few better places in town to play hookey than the Missouri History Museum. And right now, for the food lover, there's a fine excuse to go. Coffee: The World in Your Cup & St. Louis in Your Cup has just opened there. A two-part exhibit, it encompasses coffee around the world and - probably of more interest to us - coffee's role in St. Louis. Happily, the local focus encompasses the majority of the space and items displayed.
No surprise that a city founded by the French would quickly latch onto coffee. Green coffee beans rode up the Mississippi with other supplies. The railroads soon were bringing them in, too. In those days, people roasted them at home - you've probably seen old coffee grinders, but who realized how those beans got roasted?
St. Louis became a major center for outfitting groups beginning their treks west for exploration and, of course, profit. A list of suggested supplies for four men en route to Colorado, presumably to the silver mines there, included coffee, which cost more per pound than even sugar. Along the way, many coffee companies opened here. At the time of the 1904 World's Fair, a St. Louis coffee merchant was even selling coffee inside Grant's Cabin, which had been moved to the fairgrounds. By 1920, the Chamber of Commerce was insisting that this was the coffee capital of the United States.
Through much of the twentieth century, local brands proliferated. St. Louis had many, doing battle with labels like Folger's and Maxwell House for shelf space and consumer dollars. The advertising makes for some fascinating stuff, even focusing on things like various containers that would appeal to customers. Tie-in ads, we learn, are nothing new. Today we connect Buster Brown with children's shoes (from St. Louis' Brown Shoe company), but it was originally a comic strip, and the Steinwender-Stoffregen Coffee Company used the name and images in their ads, one of several local companies over the years to do so.
Old Judge had a tie-in with the St. Louis Cardinals celebrating their appearance in the 1943 World Series. The good news: Coffee rationing had just been lifted a few months before. The bad news: We lost the series to the Yankees.
Who remembers that Old Judge had a magician making their television commercials? There's a clip of that, and another commercial with a group of fine-looking young women representing several coffee-growing Latin American countries. But surely the leader among the contender for memorable St. Louis coffee ads has to be Dana Brown's for his Safari Coffee. There's a set with a properly aged sofa to sit down and watch them. Yes, strong arguments can be made about the commercials' big-game hunting being distasteful and their racism even more so, but they were one of the marks of their time. The Dana Brown Charitable Trust is partly funding this show - but they're also doing big-time work with children's charities here in town.
No, there's no Smell-o-vision here, but it's an exhibit that may well drive one upstairs to Bixby's, the restaurant, or its snack bar, to have some coffee and a sandwich.
Coffee: The World in Your Cup & St. Louis in Your Cup
Through January 3, 2016
Missouri History Museum
Mon - Sun: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Tue: 10 a.m. - 8 p.m.