How we used to make coffee

Swan Savoy Coffee Percolator, 1950s

In 1930s' Britain coffee was not a popular drink. People spent twenty times as much on tea as they did on coffee, in spite of coffee being more expensive. It had a reputation of being popular only with the better off. 

In 1950s' Britain coffee enjoyed a revival, however, that was mainly due to the introduction of instant coffee just before the War and its greater availabilty in the 1950s.

A few people still preferred the taste of real coffee, but it was made very differently from how we make it today.

The most popular methods of making coffee were either in a jug, percolator or saucepan.

Making coffee in jug

My grandmother used to go to the Cadena Café in Leamington Spa to buy ground coffee. She made her coffee in a jug.

This was the most popular method in 1950s' Britain. Good Housekeeping's Cookery Compendium from 1952 recommended an eathernware jug. However, I found a Pyrex measuring jug did just as well. To make coffee this way:

  • Boil the required quantity of water
  • Put 2oz of ground coffee per pint of water into the jug
  • Add the boiling water to the coffee and stir
  • Cover the jug and leave for five minutes (or longer for a stronger brew)
  • Pour the coffee into the cups through a strainer

There are variations which include re-warming the coffee and straining it into another jug or coffee pot to serve.

I found this method made strong, dark coffee. If you prefer milk with your coffee, Good Housekeeping suggested serving it with hot milk, one part milk to two parts coffee.

Making coffee in a percolator

In 1939 The Times suggested that every soon-to-be-wed couple ask for an electric coffee percolator on their wedding list. This was an exaggeration; possibly a large percentage of newly-weds that read The Times might have asked for one, but most people prefered tea to coffee and probably did not have an electric socket to plug one into anyway.

Coffee percolators were nevertheless popular with coffee drinkers in the first half of the twentieth century.

Coffee percolator basket and tube

Coffee percolators work by forcing boiling water through a tube and allowing it to trickle back through a perforated basket containing the coffee.

Coffee percolaters usually have a metal basket with a large number of small holes in the top which allow the water in and holes in the the sides and bottom allow the coffee out. A tube with an inverted funnel at the base goes through the basket and has a hole at the top to allow water to escape.

You fill the basket with 1½oz of coffee per pint of water and put cold water in the percolator. The percolator is then placed on the stove top or plugged in if it is an electric one. As the water boils, it goes up tube and escapes at the top. The water flows back down through the basket absorbing the flavour of the coffee.

You need to keep the percolator gently simmering for about ten minutes.

Pyrosil percolator, c1964

Coffee made this way can be quite weak to modern tastes. Percolators also boil the coffee, which is not great for the flavour. I found the best perocolator was the one Which? recommended in 1964, the American made Pyrosil. This made passable coffee, but was expensive to buy at £5 17 6d (or £80 in today's money). It had the advantage of a ceramic jug and stainless steel basket. Cheaper percolators used aluminium parts, which may have tainted the flavour somewhat.

Making coffee in a saucepen

This is variation on the jug method. In this case you put the coffee and cold water in a saucepan and heat to just below boiling point stirring as it heats. The heat is then turned down and the saucepan is covered. Leave for five minutes and then strain into a warmed jug to serve.

An alternative is to make it with milk instead of water.

Other variations were to add salt to the coffee! People also debated the merit of boiling the coffee. In my view, neither are likely to make it taste better.

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