Exhibition Taster: Do you know what this is??

Whether you think you know what this object is or you’re still guessing, read on to find out more.

Cona Coffee Maker

Electric coffee makers have been around since the early twentieth century. A report on a meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1909 remarked that, “one of the pleasing little surprises of the evening was the use of electric coffee percolators.”[1] They were soon being advertised for domestic use in American magazines and newspapers as the “right way and the dainty way to brew fragrant coffee”. Domestic uptake was probably slow, though.

Meanwhile, in England, in 1910, Alfred Cohn invented a new non-electric coffee vacuum pot for brewing coffee in the home. The design was striking and the process relatively clean and effortless. Fuelled by a spirit burner, this new “Cona” coffee pot, proved a big success. The early advertisements boasted, “Perfect coffee made in three minutes … This machine extracts all the coffee, and is the cleanest and most simple ever invented.”

Irish Examiner, 8 May 1952

An electric version of the Cona design is first mentioned around 1937, and seems to have briefly become something of a ‘must have’ wedding present. The main sales push for the model that will be on display in our exhibition began in Britain and Ireland in the late 1940s, though. In a newspaper piece on a shopping trip to Cork in 1949, the journalist mentioned that she saw, “spirit and electric ‘Cona’ coffee machines, capacity ½ pint to 2 pints. These are constructed entirely from flame-proof glass, and each part is easily dismantled and cleaned.” The ½ pint model with two yards of three-cord flex was priced at 70 shillings.[2] Judging from anecdotal evidence, the fondness for the cheaper, old spirit versions must have made it a challenge to sell the new electric type. It would undoubtedly have been a show-piece to be used at dinner parties in middle-class Irish homes. As Sheila Hardy writes in Women of the 1960s (2015): “Possibly you were one of those who preferred to stand your Cona coffee maker on the sideboard so that guests could watch the water passing over the ground coffee and into the jug below.”

Here’s how it works:

[1] Proceedings of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers 28 (1909) 18.

[2] Irish Press, 29 August 1949.

Check back every second Monday for a new taster in the lead up to the opening of the Electric Generations exhibition.

Electric Generations: The Story of Electricity in the Irish Home will be at dlr LexIcon in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin from 2 October until 2 December 2017 and at the Irish World Heritage Centre in Manchester in spring 2018. Learn more about the Electric Generations team here.

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