The VacPot HeyDay
I originally wrote this article in 1999, and decided to keep it pretty much intact. But keep in mind some of the stuff I've written is opinion, some fact, and some probably not even valid. This is not the be all, end all of Vacuum Coffee brewing history. That said....
In North America, and possibly the rest of the world (still checking on this), the vacuum coffee brewer had its Golden Age in the 1930s and 1940s. Even in the 1950s, vacuum brewed coffee was the standard in many kitchens, and even on ships in the US Navy, where many a glass Cory lived and died. The 1960s saw the decline of this device, as fewer and fewer manufacturers made them, and by the 1970s when the auto drip took off, vacuum brewing all but died in North America. Let's take a look at the history of the vacuum brewing method in the 20th century.
In The Beginning
I don't know much about the origins of the vacuum brewing method, other than I know Robert Napier, one of the guys who invented the steam engine, is one of the guys who came up with the idea. (note, there is discrepancy in this - some say a French woman invented it, others say an American did it. I'm going with Napier). The design was tinkered with during the 19th century, and eventually the simplified device, exhibited still today in Bodum Santos models (still sold today) came into being.
At the front of my vac pot section, I briefly talked about the lack of good information online about the vacuum brewing method, and you have to wonder about this - after all, in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and even early 60s, the vacuum method ruled the kitchen along side perk and other methods.. Most of the major "appliance" companies of that era made vacuum pots, including Silex, Westinghouse, Cory, General Electric, Sunbeam, just to name a few. Some of these companies (like Silex) made a whole catalog's worth of different models and accessories. If you were a coffee drinker in the 40s or 50s and you appreciated a good cuppa, chances are you had a vacuum pot in the kitchen.
The two kings of the era appear to be Sunbeam for automatics, and Silex for traditional brewing devices. GE had an impressive collection in the 1930s, but appeared to slowly drop their line by the 1950s rolled on.
What's the difference between auto and traditional? The autos were "set and forget" machines - complete with built in heating elements, and an automatic thermostat device to complete the brewing cycle (note, if you don't know what the brewing cycle of a vacuum pot is, go back to my vacuum pot intro page and read!!).
Based on all that I've read and seen (especially at eBay), Sunbeam had the market sewn up on the automatic style, with their CoffeeMaster series. From the venerable C20s with their cloth filters, up to the C50 wildabeasts produced in the early 60s, which seemed to be the epitome of the vacuum method (and metal in appliances) at the time.
The CoffeeMasters are pretty impressive. We're talking about a product produced in an era when companies weren't afraid to put some bulk and solidity into their products - no plastic and cost-saving crap for the Sunbeams - nope - they were made from a solid copper base which was completely covered with chrome. A Coffeemaster, complete with filter assembly weighs over 4 pounds. These things were built to last, and in many cases they have.
Cory, another company producing vacuum pots in that era, (and much more famous for their glass filter rods), also made an all metal automatic machine. Two of them in fact - an aluminum model with a few variations (I have one, and it is dated August 12, 1951 under the bottom cap), and a chrome over copper model that was made in the 1940s and 1950s. I have 4 Sunbeam models and 2 Cory Automatics (one chrome/copper, one aluminum) and I have to say I actually prefer the Corys - they don't have a switch on them like the Sunbeams (HI and LO), but they do "kick down" fine during their brew cycle - arguably better timing than the Sunbeams. But with only two models (and a few variants), the Corys apparently played second fiddle to the mighty Sunbeam CoffeeMaster line.
But Cory and Sunbeam weren't the only "automatics" on the market. I have found another manufacturer - Silex. They were famous for their glass vac pots, which featured little matching "stoves" that heated the pots independently from the household stove. I believe Silex's offering to the automatic world was in direct competition to the Sunbeams of the day - the housewife liked the convenience of an automatic, so Silex tried to comply.
What they came up with was the Silex Self Timing Stove, which featured a dial and kickdown device built right into the plug that hooked up to a Silex stove. Based on a built in timer, the device would automatically cut out the electricity at a certain time. It wasn't entirely foolproof, but a few "Self Timing Stove" owners I've spoken to say it works well enough. These stoves with the timer cords in good condition are pretty rare these days.
Traditional Vacuum Brewers
Traditional (mainly glass) brewers were profuse from the 30s on up to the 50s and 60s. Silex seems to be the most prolific. In my online research (again, mainly at eBay, and also by viewing old Silex product catalogs), Silex produced at least 16 different types of vacuum brewers between 1930 and the mid 1950s, and many of them had different colour choices. These different models including small 2 cup brewers and the monsterous 12 cup model I saw from the early 50s.
Silex also made the coolest looking heaters for their brewers - I've seen at least 5 different designs in 4 different colors (white, black, red, chrome). They even made one unit that was designed to be a "universal" heater - it had these little petal-like metal pieces all around the heating element that, through springs, would "hug" almost any vacuum pot shape. And lucky me, I managed to snag one of these off of eBay some time back. Works pretty well..
As an owner of 4 Silex stoves of various sizes and from different decades, I can say these devices did the job well, though are pretty dangerous - the outsides of them get sizzling hot and you have to be careful around them. But they did the job well, giving average brew times of 10 minutes or less from room temperature water. I have a 4 cup Silex vac pot and stove, and it takes only 6 minutes to brew my cuppas. A big selling point for these devices was that you could brew at the dinner table if you want, as the stove is small and unobtrusive.
Other companies made traditional brewers as well. Nicro made a stainless steel stovetop model, and several British companies (like Kent) made glass models for their market. In the US, General Electric made many models, some in a very "Jetson's style" shape for both vac pot and stove The stove for one GE model is totally like the Jetsons' flying saucer. Westinghouse and other manufacturers of the day rounded out the offerings.
Then there's Cory... It seems Cory also had a prominent place in the vacuum brewing method marketplace. The famous glass filter rods were sold everywhere. I remember breaking one of my grand mother's filter rods by using it to dig a hole in the back yard as a child. The biggest drawback of the Cory rod was addressed by the "Lox in" rod by Silex... a rod that featured a spring on the bottom, very similar to the assembly of the filter with the Bodum Santos, available today.
Cory made many different models of glass vacuum brewers, but they all seemed to focus around the 8 cup model. To my eye, the Cory vacuum pot is the most unattractive of all the models by various companies of the era, but I assume they were functional. They just seemed fat, with a dual platform area in the top chamber - I've always preferred the more globe like shapes of the silexes and the new Bodum Santos brands - smooth, continuous surface without steps or changes in angles.
Cory also made a device known as a "gasketless vacuum brewer", a vac pot without any rubber gaskets! I'd love to give you more info on these, but unfortunatly trying to buy one on eBay is next to impossible - there's a rew collectors of these devices who will pay astronomic prices for them, leaving the rest of us gasketless-less :-)
Cory was very much a "coffee machine company" during their time, and they even made an automatic burr grinder for home use, one of the first available... it was a great match for their brewing devices.
Vacuum Brewer Era, Its Ending, and My Theories on Why
So far all of my research leads me to believe that vacuum pot brewing was "da bomb" back in the WW II era and beyond. It seemed there were as many manufacturers of this device as there are today of drip coffee makers.
Then in the sixties (or possibly the early seventies), it all came to an end. In the US, the scene shifted from everyone making them to narry a one producing them. They just stopped making vacuum pots in the US. It got me wondering why.
So I looked at the time. Being a student of both History and Anthropology, I have some tools to investigate this, both from a factual, recorded base, and from a cultural analysis. I've come up with several reasons for the demise of the vacuum brewing method in the US and beyond.
- First thing you must recognize is that cleaning a vacuum brewer does take a bit of effort - certainly more so than cleaning a cup after drinking some instant coffee, or dumping a filter from a auto-drip coffee maker.
- With the cleaning hassles being a given, one then looks at the time period that the decline of the vacuum brewers' popularity took place in - the 50s and 60s. A time when America (much more so than Europe) was looking for convenience, automation, less hassle. The automatic dishwasher came into its own in the 1950s of America. Automatic transmissions on cars became more and more common. Automation, and its partner - convenience, ruled the day. The vacuum brewer, even the automatic Sunbeams, didn't fit into this scenario.
- Americans (North Americans - I have to be careful not to include Europeans) showed a greater tendency to give up quality for convenience and automation. TV dinners were a product of the 50s and 60s, and are a prime example of this loss of quality for convenience. In the coffee world, companies like Maxwell House and Nescafe, long producers of preground coffee, started to sell more and more instant coffee. All of these convenience items took away from the vacuum brewer market.
- The invention of the automatic drip machine (pioneered by Mr.Coffee) signaled what I think was the real end of the vacuum brewer. Some have argued that the percolator beat out the vacuum pot, but I simply don't buy that argument, and have found little evidence to prove it. But the advent of the automatic filter drip - that was the last nail. The filtered, drip method of producing coffee is a definite step up from instant, and to many, not much of a step down in quality from a vacuum brewer. To get your coffee automatically, and all you had to do after was to dump your filter and grounds in the garbage and rinse (or autodishwash) your coffee pot... well, this was convenience without too much loss of quality.
All of these factors have contributed, in my opinion, to the near death of the vacuum brewing method. The willingness to give up quality for speed and convenience, and the drip machine killed off the vacuum brewing market.
Having had drip coffee from some of the top machines in the industry, none of them (and I mean NONE) compare to the flavour, aroma, and taste I get from my vacuum brewers. Drip is not bad at all... good, and even great at times, but it doesn't compare to the pureness and complete, proper extraction you get from a vacuum brewer.
One thing I have to make clear is that not all vacuum brewers are alike. I think the coffee from manual, all glass models is definitely better than the coffee from a chrome Sunbeam CoffeeMaster - then again, all of my CoffeeMasters (4 currently) are old and preused, so maybe that's a factor - 40 year old stains that no amount of scrubbing can completely clean out influence the taste... that plus the fact that manual glass vacuum brewers are so manual, you, the drinker, decides when to stop the brewing process might make the difference in taste.
And lets be thankful that a handful of companies are still manufacturing vacuum brewers today. In Europe, you have Bodum and Cona carrying the torch (and some Belgian company). The Bodum model, the Santos, has been in constant production since the late 1950s, and is the most economical of the current brewers. In Asia (and especially Japan) vacuum brewing is still the preferred way of making coffee and there are several manufacturers there, including Hario, Yama, Tayli and others. Some of these devices are now being marketed in North America.
When I originally wrote this article (in a much shorter version) for the alt.coffee newsgroup, I made a prediction: I think vacuum brewing is about to make a comeback. I think the natural progression of coffee quality in the 90s (more and more people are giving up instant for quality coffee) will convince one of the major manufacturers to bring back to market a fully automatic vacuum brewer for the next millennium.
Could we possibly see a new CoffeeMaster from Sunbeam? For the new millennium? The CoffeeMaster 2000! The CoffeeMaster Millennium! You never know...