Great old letters: 19th-c. Smithsonian Institution Secty. on "superior excellence" of a good cup of coffee

Samuel P. Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Photograph by R. H. Lord.

Boing Boing pal Isabel Lara of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum sends along a fantastic little gem from the museum's Archives Division, unearthed during their ongoing epic move to the Stephen F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Within their collection of the aeronautical papers of Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906), the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, a letter of note to coffee lovers.

This intellectually curious man, whose interests ranged from "astronomy, astrophysics, aeronautics, and bird flight, mathematics, and the reckoning of standard time," was also really into "observing and describing all sorts of processes — and then suggesting improvements."

One of those processes, which he describes in loving detail here, is the preparation of of a really good cup of coffee at the Posthof café in the spa town of Carlsbad in Bohemia, then part of Austria-Hungary (now Karolvy Vary in the Czech Republic). The letter is addressed to his niece Mary.

Dear Mary, I hope this will interest you.

Your Uncle Samuel

The best coffee in Carlsbad is at the Posthof, and is as good as I know of anywhere. I have been looking into the kitchen this morning and seeing it prepared. The statement that figs or anything of the kind are employed is legendary. There is absolutely nothing but coffee, and it owes its superior excellence to the freshness and the pains taken in its making.

1. The coffee in the berry.

There are four kinds of coffee bean employed: the Menado, Ceylon, Java and Preanger. I do not know the English equivalents for the first and last. They are of very different sizes indeed, and this difference in size of the berry must make it difficult to burn them equally.

2. Roasting.

The roasting is done in a rotary wire mesh over a slow fire. The coffee is renewed three times daily. Each time 10 to 20 pounds of coffee is roasted, a girl turning the handle, and the process occupying in each case nearly an hour. In spite of this care, when the beans come out some of them are very dark and these are picked out.

Read the rest here.


  1. This is great, Xeni. Thanks. Fresh beans, and a painstaking process. Those are the only things that have always mattered in the making of coffee.

    @taratigerbrown:disqus I’m with you. My grandpop looks _exactly_ like Langley. I’ll just get a cape for him, and we’ve got that part covered.

    @BoingBoing:disqus This new software is exceedingly slow. It takes nearly a minute just the load the comments for a new thread. And my CPU spikes when I do it. Please, either fix it, or go back to the good-enough days. Please.

  2. Fresh beans from the right source! Those are all some lovely Indonesian coffees, dark and rich and earthy… Menado is Sulawesi, Ceylon is Sri Lanka, which no longer produces coffee, and the last two are “Java, plus coffee from a specific farm on Java.”

  3. Sir either needs a larger writing-desk, or a bit less clutter thereon.  Odd that his portraitist demanded he don his most formal raiment, and then had him sit at the corner of his écritoire and make like he’s scribbling his Trader Joe’s grocery list.

  4. Suddenly I’m reminded of Charlie Stross’ collection of stories called ‘Toast’.  One of the stories spoke of a secret society that worshipped the bean.

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