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Coffee, coffee everywhere

Reverse commuting makes buying coffee difficult. Everywhere south of Boston, Dunkin' Donuts locates shops on the east side of roads leading to Boston. Experts at Dunkin' Donuts University know that work-bound commuters want fast easy-off, easy-on access to a favorite morning drink. Waiting to drive across oncoming traffic might make many caffeine-anxious motorists drive on to a competitor. But that oncoming traffic includes reverse commuters who find their access to coffee delayed by the flow of cars heading toward Boston.

At the Quincy Adams MBTA station, Red Line trains disgorge dozens of coffee-cup-carrying passengers bound for nearby office parks. Building more coffee shops for commuters driving south and west of Boston seems like a good bet nowadays.

Since 1773, when patriotic Colonists eschewed tea after the Boston Tea Party, coffee has energized breakfast. Originally native to Ethiopia, then smuggled into Arabia and then to Turkey, the hot beverage became a Muslim delight. The first coffee shop opened in Turkey in 1475, and for years Turkish law permitted any husband to divorce his wife if the household ran out of coffee. Blessed by the Pope in 1600 as a heavenly drink, it arrived in the New World in 1607, courtesy of Captain John Smith, one of the founders of Virginia. Europeans enjoyed it in coffeehouses, the first established in Italy in 1645 and another seven years later in London.

Merchants conducted business over coffee, and the great insurance firm, Lloyds of London, began in a coffeehouse in 1668. In the largely rural colonies, farm families drank it away from coffeehouses, but by 1668, it had replaced beer as the favorite morning drink of New York City residents.

European nations struggled to plant coffee in new colonies. The Dutch succeeded in growing it in Java in 1690, giving coffee its enduring nickname, but not until the Portuguese planted it in Brazil in 1727, using beans smuggled from French experiments in the Caribbean, did the world harvest explode. By 1907 Brazil produced 97 percent of the global coffee crop, partly in response to the furious demand for coffee in the United States. Americans loved custom-blended coffee, and in 1886 Joel Cheek, a wholesale grocer, began distributing a blend named after its place of origin, the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville. Four years later, the Hills Brothers perfected the packaging of coffee in vacuum cans, signaling the beginning of the end of coffee-grinding machines serving harried urban workers. In 1923, 20 years after its invention in Germany, Sanka decaffeinated coffee began selling in the United States. Prohibition caused its sales to mushroom, along with that of ordinary coffee. Not until the 1886 invention of Coca-Cola did soft drinks compete with coffee. Until the beginning of the 20th century, coffee ruled as the national drink.

In 1942, GIs received cans of Maxwell House coffee in their ration kits. Troops, sailors, and war workers consumed vast quantities, producing a postwar taste for good coffee that shaped peacetime fashion. In 1946, Achilles Gaggia perfected an espresso machine in Italy that made cappuccino, a coffee named for the color of the robes of Capuchin monks. The same year, William Rosenberg founded his Industrial Luncheon Service in Quincy. Two years later, Rosenberg opened a coffee shop on the Southern Artery named The Open Kettle, and in 1950 he changed the name to Dunkin' Donuts. While Gaggia's machine remained a novelty for years, Rosenberg's experiment expanded by franchising.

The second Dunkin' Donuts shop opened in Worcester in 1955, and by 1963, the chain had 100 shops. By 1979, it had 1,000 shops in the United States and hundreds overseas, becoming as worldwide as the ships Quincy once launched from the Fore River shipyard. But Americans understood the chain as veterans understood the first shop on the Southern Artery. Coffee energized people headed for work and at work. It helped fuel the massive economic growth of the postwar era, and running out of coffee at break time became a calamity.

Not until the 1970s did Americans discover the social energy of European coffeehouses. In 1971, Starbucks opened its first coffee shop in Seattle, beginning a gradual revolution in coffee marketing. Offering excellent coffee in surroundings that encouraged customers to linger over light food and newspapers not only catapulted Starbucks' business but produced dozens of competitors. Starbucks served a growing takeout clientele, but also created a booming mid-morning and mid-afternoon business.

American automobiles in the 1970s lacked cup holders. Motorists did not consume and drive, but instead stopped for meals on long trips. Cup holders evolved from the fast-food industry and transformed the national attitude toward breakfasting during commutes. Cup holders made it possible to enjoy piping-hot coffee during breezy and slow rides alike. Despite their innovative packaging of doughnuts and doughnut holes in boxes, Dunkin' Donuts and its competitors have not perfected a device that transports multiple cups of coffee, although cardboard holders work well most of the time. The built-in cup holder makes breakfast easy for the driver and maybe for a passenger, and coffee-consuming motorists enjoy the east-side location of coffee shops with no more notice than they give the invention of cup holders.

But reverse commuters still suffer. They often leave from urban locations fitted with coffee shops that offer no parking lots, and when they reach south-of-Boston suburbs, they must wait patiently to cross city-bound traffic. After buying their coffee, they must wait even longer to cross the city-bound traffic again. At least they have cup holders in which to place their coffee while they wait.

Norwell resident John Stilgoe is Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard University.

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