New-fangled electric coffee grinders are a popular toy of coffee connoisseurs. You’ll find a tremendous selection of coffee grinders on the market, and you can pay quite a bit of money for one. I have a small electric Braun that was a gift, and it does an ok job. I’ve never felt like I had much success with electric coffee grinders, because they tend to make powder when I use them. Either that, or they leave chunks of coffee beans unground. I really don’t like electric appliances much, and I guess it shows.
I have a small collection of hand crank coffee grinders. They are all box, or lap type grinders. One is not antique, and I thought I’d use it and preserve the old ones for posterity. Wouldn’t you know…the replica coffee grinder is the one that is fragile and sits unused.
My favorite coffee grinder is one of my great-grandmother’s from 1890, the year she was married. I don’t use it every day, but when it starts looking lonely on the shelf, I get it down and give it a little TLC. Half of the cast iron cover for the hopper is missing, and the wooden top is cracked under the crank handle, but the cast iron grinding assembly is perfect and it works very well. It is adjustable, so you can set the coarseness of the grind by simply turning a wing nut. The capacity is a little greater than the other coffee grinders I have, so it turns out a large amount of coffee in a short time. It takes less than two minutes to grind enough coffee by hand to make a pot.
There’s something about grinding coffee by hand that is both invigorating and calming. Part of it is the aroma. It starts out faint, and becomes more robust the longer you grind. Part of it is just using a mechanically wonderful gizmo that was so well designed there isn’t much about it that you could improve upon.
Using a hand cranked coffee grinder is fun. You just pour roasted beans into the open hopper, and start cranking. Some coffee grinders have a little drawer that the ground coffee drops into. My favorite grinder has a nifty little door that opens. The door has a little “shelf” that swings out with it, and it holds a round wood-and-tin cup that contains the ground coffee, so it’s easy to carry it to the coffeepot.
Besides the box type grinders, a number of other styles of hand coffee grinders were made. Some are wall mounted. They often have a hopper with a lid that holds a pound or two of beans, and a collection cup (glass) usually held in place by a little spring-loaded clamp. Many of the wall mounts have glass hoppers as well. Not only could you see at a glance when the coffee supply was low, but the entire hopper could be removed for a good cleaning.
There were also table mount coffee grinders that had screw clamps to hold them to the edge of a table or a countertop. These were usually smaller, since they were stored in a drawer or cupboard when not in use. They are about the size of one of those little meat grinders you can still buy. They became popular in the early 1900s, and were used regularly until after WW II when marketers began pushing ground coffee in cans.
Then there are the upright coffee grinders, the kind with a hand wheel on one or both sides that were commonplace in general stores. This design was made in several sizes, including cute little home kitchen versions. Collectors love the small versions.
Although coffee grinders have been made for centuries, most of the ones you see as antiques are from the mid-19th through the mid 20th century.