NATIONAL COFFEE DAY: TIME FOR A GOOD STIFF … ‘CUPPA JOE’ 

1950s style Army man wearing a helmet lifts coffee mug.

Today is National Coffee Day, and no one appreciates a good cup of coffee more than members of the United States military. Why, you might ask? 

Because they rarely get a really good cup of coffee. In galleys and mess halls, it’s brewed for the masses – thick, industrial and served from urns. No talls, ventis, grandes or trentas here, folks.  Or even smalls, mediums, larges and extra larges. It’s one-size-fits all, with refills. 

Indeed, the standard-issue java has a long held important role in military service, beginning long before the Navy nicknamed it a “cuppa Joe” (which we will address momentarily).  

Photo of Josephus Daniels
Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels

Americans declared their independence from tea when protestors threw it into Boston Harbor in 1773 – three years before our Founding Fathers dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s to declare independence from England entirely. We pledged our allegiance to coffee instead, with the coffee break replacing the afternoon “spot.” 

Throughout virtually all wars soldiers, sailors and Marines used hot coffee to warm up on cold nights. President Andrew Jackson ordered coffee among the military’s food staples in 1832. It became a mainstay whether brewed on the battlefield or delivered by a future president (Union commissary Sergeant William McKinley during the Civil War). It is served by mess hall and galley stewards and USO volunteers. 

Coffee took on a greater role to Navy personnel in 1914, when Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels banned alcohol from U.S. ships and naval bases. He also barred professional companionship from the bases, and expanded the chaplaincy program to boost morals, if not morale. 

Daniels’ issued his Order 99 six years before the Volstead Act ushered in the Prohibition Era (1920-33) and made the sale of alcohol illegal in the United States. Even after Congress repealed Prohibition in 1933, the Navy continued its dry ways. (The U.S. president when Prohibition ended? Franklin D. Roosevelt, who at 31 in 1913 became the youngest assistant Navy secretary ever, serving under Daniels until 1920.) 

Photo of Josephus Daniels, with Franklin D. Roosevelt standing behind.
Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, seated, with Assistant Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt (standing left).

Hence, coffee replaced cocktails as the great social beverage aboard ships and at Navy bases, despite one final binge the day Order 99 ended more than a century of rum and “grog” as part of the Navy culture. From that point forward, sailors referred to coffee as a “cuppa Joe,” an unflattering slap at Secretary “Joe” Daniels. 

Coffee, however, offers properties that alcohol does not. Regular coffee contains caffeine, a stimulant that keeps people awake and alert, which is beneficial when a decent night’s sleep isn’t going to happen, as often is the case in the military. 

Indeed, coffee served the nation’s servicemen and servicewomen well through World Wars I and II, The Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars, everything in between, and future generations can expect the same.  

Will it taste great? Probably not, and will always need some diluting or doctoring. Drinking water aboard ship came through a desalination process that didn’t completely extract salt from the sea water. Salt, however, cut the bitterness of the industrial-strength coffee served aboard ship. When they came home, many veterans added salt to their coffee because they’d grown to prefer it, according to some accounts. 

photo of Victor Navy coffee mug
Victor handleless Navy coffee cup.

The coffee mug also became an important part of the equation. During World War II, the Navy wanted a coffee cup designed to survive the constant rolling of the ships at sea. It contracted with Victor, a company in New York that manufactures porcelain electrical insulators and still exists today, to create the perfect coffee mug. Victor’s Navy mugs were made with thick porcelain walls and with no handles that would break off during the jostling at sea. Many veterans preferred them to cups with handles at home as well. 

Hence, on this National Coffee Day, we at CalVet tip our caps and our cups to the battle-tested “cuppa Joe” that has served our military so well and for so long. 

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