Willoughby: Coffee — a commodity cherished in Aspen for more than a century

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Collectors treasure paper dolls from Lion Coffee packages of the 1880s and ‘90s.
Library of Congress |

Extended family and my parents’ friends took part in picnic-and-fishing excursions most summer weekends of the 1950s. To simplify the routine my parents created ready-to-go picnic kits. My father turned dynamite boxes on their sides and outfitted them with a downward-folding, hinged door. My mother lined the inside with shelf paper. She added elastic strips to fasten utensils onto the door and sides. Then my parents filled the kit with essentials. The cook needed a cast iron skillet to fry the catch. But more important for my mother than any other item: the coffee pot.

After they arrived at the picnic site, the adults set a cook fire. Then the men and boys departed to find out what luck the streams would offer that day. Mother got the coffee going and her friends filled up on conversation and brew. Their day centered on the bracing drink.

Coffee shops had not yet percolated throughout the Aspen economy, but some cafes such as the White Kitchen brewed the beverage all day. And the bowling alley housed Aspen Lanes Coffee Shop, a popular stop for workers on break.

Today a coffee shop distinguishes itself with exotic beans, but coffee was coffee in 1950s Aspen. On my home kitchen counter I would find the same brands that the coffee shop served. Except the shop had commercial-size variations of MJB, Butternut and Hills Brothers.

By 1860 Americans consumed more coffee than did any other country, according to Wikipedia. In 1891 the U.S. imported 310 million pounds from Brazil, with Venezuela ranked as the second-highest importer. Our rate of consumption continued to grow through 1920, when the U.S. accounted for nearly half the world’s consumption.

Residents have favored coffee since Aspen’s founding. A search for “coffee” on the Aspen Times website, within the Colorado Historic Newspaper Collection, yields 10,000 links.

Many items announced local events that offered coffee as an enticement. Who would turn down a meeting of the Ladies’ Society of the Congregational Church if coffee and donuts beckoned?

Search results indicate that the Aspen Tea and Coffee House on Mill Street reigned in popularity during the 1880s. The Vienna Cafe and La Veta also competed for customers. If you wanted coffee for the home kitchen, you could order eight kinds by mail from C.B. Jordan and Company of Leadville. The price in today’s dollars ranged from $5.80 to $7.60 a pound.

During the early 1890s it looks like Aspen Tea and Coffee House changed ownership and became H. J. Sears Tea Coffee and Spices. They competed with Ideal Coffee House, an ideal name back then that would not likely catch on with today’s millennials.

Lion Coffee of Toledo, Ohio, led as the most-advertised brand of the mining days. They offered free souvenir trading cards and some featured paper dolls. The cards became collector’s items. Founded during the 1860s, the company eventually became the second-largest coffee seller in the world. They created a system that sealed one pound of coffee into a shippable package that kept the flavor fresh. The U.S. Postal Service invented the bulk rate system to accommodate their many shipments.

Many groups proselytized about the evils of coffee. A newspaper article, “Take Care of the Brain,” exhorts: “Young people should never use liquors, tea or coffee. The later two may not exactly do harm, but they are conducive of no good.”

Some things never change. Trading cards continue to attract serial customers. Although Lion Coffee moved to Hawaii, you can still order it by mail. And coffee is still conducive of no good. But what good would come from doing without?

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at