Americans used to take a break called Elevenses during the work day, specifically to get drunk on company time.
As one of the foremost purveyors of the number 11 on the Internet (yes, that counts as a real thing), I keep my eyes open for all items eleven-related. Then I ignore most of them. But not this one! For July 11th, I thought I’d write about something in the Eleven Multiverse. (Which is also a real thing.)
The modern coffee break did not start out as a coffee break, at least not in the U.S. Its origins go back to Europe, where the idea of breaks (and vacations) have always had far more traction than they do over here.
The typical British workday used to start at 8:00 A.M., and lunch was at 1:00 P.M. The workers were legally entitled to a 20-minute break in the middle of that six-hour stretch, and since 11:00 A.M. was the halfway point, it became the popular time to take one. The break was known as “Elevenses,” which rolls right off the tongue. (It makes the British pronunciation of “aluminum” seem downright efficient.)
They’d drink tea during the break, and, even though it was the 1800s and 1900s, they’d probably watch Benny Hill and listen to Robbie Williams. Elevenses was popular enough that it was featured in Winnie the Pooh and The Lord of the Rings. And if bears and hobbits are taking mid-morning breaks, you know it’s gone mainstream.
Then, in the 1800s, Elevenses made their way to the U.S. But we’re not a tea-drinking country. In fact, the timing coincided with a different but growing drinking trend: Pounding whiskey around the clock.
America had recently gone all-in on corn, which led to a boom in corn-based whiskey. In the early 1800s, the average American drank five times more whiskey than we do today (approximately five gallons a year, or the equivalent of more than one shot per day; today it’s one gallon a year).
So when Elevenses touched down here, people quickly recognized that it was a whiskportunity, and they’d take a break from work — to drink whiskey. Their bosses were even supposed to supply it for them.
But over time, morning whiskey became less popular and morning coffee became more popular, and by the early 20th century, Elevenses was a coffee break. Also, no one called it Elevenses any more, the time was flexible it wasn’t necessarily at 11:00 A.M., and it was distanced enough from the whiskey tradition that, like, 15 different companies now claim they invented the coffee break.
But, at its roots, it all comes down to whiskey. So when you and I decide to Irish up our coffees this morning (or already do it every morning), it’s not “a sign of a problem,” it’s “an homage to American history.” To the proud, fleeting tradition of Elevenses.