MANNERS & MORALS: The Coffee Hour

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Some employers flung themselves hopelessly against the moving horde. Others, already defeated, just watched the tide, making mental notes. But there was nothing to be done about it. Every morning, in every city in the U.S., the bosses watched glumly as the last stenographer disappeared down the hall with a departing flirt of her skirt, purse clutched firmly in one hand, cigarettes and matches in the other.

The morning coffee break had become as deeply entrenched in U.S. custom as the seventh-inning stretch and the banana split. Clerks, secretaries, junior executives and salesgirls had come to consider it an inalienable right of the American office worker. In the face of that terrible, soft insistence, the fuming employer could only take his finger off the unanswered buzzer, jam on his hat, and follow along after the crowd to the coffee shop. As a matter of fact, he kind of liked a cup himself.

Chuckling Percolators. "The war, the war, it is all because of the war," growled one employer. In the drum-tight labor market of World War II, when trained workers were hard to find and hard to keep, the wise boss had indulged such little liberties. Later, the men came back from the wardrooms and mess halls of the armed forces, where the percolators chuckle day & night, and gave the custom new impetus.

These days, no time clock daunts the coffee-breakers, and no office manager's frown. The office worker who arrives at 9 o'clock runs the risk of being trampled by the 8:30 arrivals who have had time to hang up their coats, fix their faces and conscientiously flutter a few papers. Young stenographers have found that they can squeeze in a few minutes of extra sleep by dashing for the office, dashing right out again for breakfast coffee and a cruller. Said a Boston stenographer: "If I couldn't look forward to some coffee and a cigarette after the first hour's dictation, I'd scream."

From Seattle to Miami, every coffee spot has its mid-morning knots of wind-jamming men, its gaggle of gossiping women. In Chicago, policemen complain that Loop traffic is all but halted between 9:45 and 10 by swarming office workers out for the morning cup. In Washington, Ohio's Representative George Bender grumbled: "The Government buildings at coffee hour turn into skeletons. They look like recess time at school. The boys & girls dash off for coffee as if rehearsing for fire drill."

To Case a Babe. Since the war, the coffee break has been written into union contracts and authorized by state labor laws. No truly modern office building is designed without its grid of coffee dispensaries. Small-town and suburban housewives have adopted "morning coffee" as an excuse to go neighboring after the beds are made, the baby is changed and the breakfast dishes washed. In the Pacific Northwest, youths make their first date with a new girl an invitation for coffee. "Gives the guy a chance to case the babe, cheap," explained a young blade from Walla Walla.

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