“I was ready for brunch which I ate at the Maxwell House Coffee and Mayfair Drug on the corner of Broadway and 45th. This I have always wanted to do.”
Letter from Mabel Cheek to her daughter, Huldah, New York City, Dec. 10, 1933
Holiday shopping took Mrs. Leslie Cheek—Mabel—to New York City from Nashville just a year after their family had moved to their newly-completed estate, Cheekwood. Her spirited letter from the Savoy Plaza Hotel reported several “finds” in the department stores, plus a museum visit, Broadway plays, and a Prohibition-era confession to her daughter: “I will have you believe, I went to a speak-easy.”
Mrs. Cheek did not reveal what cocktail she imbibed at the risqué after-hours oasis, but her brunch beverage was surely the signature drink largely credited with the founding of Cheekwood: Maxwell House Coffee. Her husband Leslie’s investments in the coffee business first established by his father’s cousin became enormously valuable when the coffee surged as a well-known and respected brand. Blazoned in azure blue cans with burnt-orange lettering, Maxwell House was welcomed nationwide, perhaps inspiring Irma S. Rombauer to observe in 1931 in her bestselling, The Joy of Cooking, “Thanks especially to vacuum-packed cans, making good coffee at home has become a surefire delight.”
Served at fine restaurants, resorts, and hotels, the branded coffee saluted Nashville’s preeminent Maxwell House, which opened in 1869 and proclaimed itself “the palatial residence of the regular boarder and the luxurious resting place of the weary traveller.” The hotel scored a presidential coup when it hosted President William Howard Taft, but greater glory redounded to the credit of the coffee when Taft’s successor visited Nashville in 1907, sipped the hotel’s signature brew, and declared it to be “good to the last drop.” Thus did President Theodore Roosevelt coin the slogan familiar to this day, joining his praise to the Maxwell House Coffee brand.
Varied brands of foods, beverages, and a host of other products have been long familiar to modern consumers, but branding itself has a history linked to the Cheeks’ association with Maxwell House Coffee. Until the late 1800s, foodstuffs such as flour and oats—and coffee beans—were sold in bulk, scooped from a sack or a barrel, weighed, and purchased as commodities. Homemakers were expected to roast the green coffee beans and grind them too. While quality could be anyone’s guess, as America’s popular morning beverage was sometimes found to be adulterated with tree bark, sawdust, and acorns, Maxwell House would never dream of besmirching its high-quality blend of coffee, and its unique brand resulted from business enterprise that revolutionized the purchase, process, and distribution of the generic foodstuffs, including coffee.
With patents and trademarks, companies could guarantee quality and reliability. Quaker Oats and Gold Medal Flour kept company with Maxwell House Coffee when, according to historian Don Doyle, the company “introduced a prepared coffee already roasted, blended…and canned, ready for home use.” “It would cost more than rival brands,” Doyle adds, “but Cheeks sought a prestige market,” and “Maxwell House Coffee eventually captured one-third of the American coffee market.”
Blog post provided by Cheekwood’s Writer-in-Residence, Cecelia Tichi, Ph.D.
Cecelia Tichi is an award-winning author and Professor of English and American Studies Emerita at Vanderbilt University. Her books span American literature and culture from colonial days to modern times, but her recent work draws upon the Gilded Age (post-1870) that prompted her book on Jack London and another on seven activists in that tumultuous era.
Cecelia’s research and teaching inspired What Would Mrs. Astor Do? The Essential Guide to the Manners and Mores of the Gilded Age, followed by Gilded Age Cocktails and Jazz Age Cocktails , which set the stage for her mystery crime novels that boast “Gilded” in each title.
Cecelia can be followed on her website: https://cecebooks.com/