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Coffee is a Korean tradition. And an Ethiopian tradition. And a Yemeni tradition. In fact, people all over the world love coffee. But, as historian Joy K. Lintelman writes, it has a special meaning for Swedish Americans.

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Lintelman writes that coffee arrived in Sweden in the seventeenth century and gradually gained favor. By 1850, when large-scale emigration from the country to the United States began, it had become enormously popular even among the working class and rural poor. Swedes in the countryside reportedly drank coffee at least five times a day, though, for many, this didn’t always mean real coffee. Unlike vodka, which rural people could distill themselves, coffee beans were necessarily an import. Many people stretched their coffee supplies with foodstuff they had on hand, including dried chicory, grains mixed with syrup, or a dough made of rye and potatoes. One Swedish immigrant to Nebraska recalled that, in his childhood, real coffee was reserved for special occasions such as Christmas and Easter. “Otherwise, roasted rye and barley supplied the ingredients for this drink,” he wrote.

Access to coffee wasn’t necessarily any better upon arrival in the US, Lintelman explains. Many Swedish immigrants continued to depend on substitutes. And if there was real coffee, it wasn’t always great. One man wrote home to Sweden from Illinois, claiming that he got “as good food as a person of rank in Sweden,” including four eggs every day. But, he added, working as a laborer, “I do not get coffee as warm as I am accustomed to… here they cook it in the morning and keep it in a pail. I drink it at midday.”

Gradually, coffee became more affordable and accessible. By the turn of the twentieth century, many Swedish American households drank the beverage with breakfast, again at midmorning, after midday dinner, at midafternoon, and after supper. Some added an extra cup before bedtime. Children often drank coffee, too—usually with plenty of milk. Lintelman notes that many twenty-first-century Swedish Americans fondly recall drinking coffee with their grandparents as part of their cultural heritage.

For many Swedish immigrants, coffee was also a key to hospitality, and a way to signal prosperity. Along with a cup of coffee, guests were always offered a baked treat—kaffe med dopp, or “coffee with dunk.” Many Swedes who had been unable to afford expensive flour in their home country offered kaffe med dopp to their friends in America as a “fulfillment of a Swedish peasant dream.”

In 1946, the Chamber of Commerce in the Swedish American stronghold of Wilmar, Minnesota, launched Kaffe Fest, and designated the community “the Coffee Capital of the World.” The festival featured a coffee-drinking contest and the crowning of a Kaffe Fest Queen.

In the 1960s, Procter & Gamble created an advertising campaign featuring Mrs. Olson, a Swedish American woman who taught young married women to make good coffee for their husbands. If other Americans didn’t already know it, this helped the whole country understand just how much their Swedish neighbors loved coffee.

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Minnesota History, Vol. 63, No. 5 (Spring 2013), pp. 190–202
Minnesota Historical Society Press