German entrepreneur Melitta Bentz (1873–1950) invented the first paper coffee filter in 1908 as a way to improve the typically bitter coffee of the day. Experimenting with a small brass pot and blotting paper, Bentz produced a cup of coffee smooth and free of grounds. Her patent for both paper filter and filter holder led to the Melitta brand and the international manufacturing and retail conglomerate bearing her name.
Melitta Bentz was born Amalie Auguste Melitta Liebscher in Dresden, Germany, in 1873, into an entrepreneurial family; her grandparents owned a brewery and her father was a publisher and book salesman. Little is written of her life until in her thirties when, married and raising a family, she began improvising ways to brew a better cup of coffee. Her experiment in 1908 was successful and she soon founded her own company, with her husband and sons as her first employees. Bentz directed the company through its early success and shepherded product improvement, the interruptions of war, and the firm's expansion into a corporation for over 22 years. Although she handed off her leadership role to her husband and son in 1930, she continued to shape the company's employee management policies until her death in 1950.
Although coffee had become a popular everyday drink by 1900, preparing it was a hit-or-miss affair; the ceramic or metal filtering devices then available tended to leave grounds in the coffee, and boiling coffee grounds in cloth bags gave it a burnt taste and a messy bag that had to be washed. Even the percolators of the day tended to burn the brew.
As a young mother raising young sons Willy (born 1899) and Horst (born 1904; daughter Herta would be born in 1911), Bentz improvised the first version of her successful coffee-making product using a little brass pot from her kitchen and a sheet of blotting paper. She poked holes in the bottom of the pot using a hammer and nail, then scouted for the perfect filter paper. In her son's school composition book, she found blotting paper, a very thin and tissue-like paper that was specially made to soak up the excess ink from fountain pens, which were then dipped directly into bottles of ink. The blotting paper kept the coffee grounds in the pot while the boiling water soaked through it and allowed the coffee infusion to drip through the nail holes and into the cup. The result was a consistently fragrant, smooth, and tasty beverage.
In late 1908, Bentz received a patent for her invention and registered her company, Melitta-Werke Aktiengesellschaft, for the sale of coffee filters with the trade office in Dresden. Corporate headquarters was a room in her apartment, and her starting capital was a tiny amount of money. She and her husband Hugo Bentz ordered a starting supply of 50 filter holders, made by a local tinsmith, along with 100 cartons of blotter paper, both of which they marketed at a trade fair with great success. They promoted their product relentlessly, at trade fairs as well as directly to department and householdgoods stores. Orders multiplied, and they were soon winning regional awards and enjoying success with their product.
In 1914, war was declared between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, quickly drawing all of Europe and nations from around the world into World War I. Hugo Bentz was drafted by the German government to serve the war effort in Romania, paper was rationed, and all metals were requisitioned for the manufacture of zeppelins, flying “blimps” used in surveillance and combat. Production of coffee filters was impossible, and Bentz adapted, making her living during the war by selling cartons.
After World War I ended in 1918, the Bentzes grew their company, adding many employees and moving to bigger production facilities in Dresden as sales demanded. Melitta-Werke eventually had to leave Dresden when their workforce grew to 80 workers, establishing a new factory in Minden, Prussia, which eventually became part of Germany. Soon after the move, Bentz stepped away from running the company (now a corporation), selling her majority stake to her husband and son Horst, who would take the company international by patenting and selling Melitta products in major markets around the world. She continued to be involved with her workers, however, improving employee benefits such as Christmas bonuses and paid vacations and instituting “Melitta Aid,” a support fund for employees in financial need.
When World War II broke out in 1939, production at Melitta factories was once more diverted to military purposes. Coffee filter production would not resume until 1947, two years after the war ended, because Allied troops were using the main factory in Minden as their provisional headquarters. That same year, Hugo Bentz died, followed three years later by Bentz herself, on June 29, 1950.
Melitta Group KG is now a collection of 50 companies producing an array of products, with over 3,000 employees worldwide. It continues to be owned and managed by members of the Bentz family.
EuroBusiness, February, 1995, Doug Payne, “Mothers of Invention,” p. 75.
Melitta Group website, https://www.melitta-group.com/en/ (July 15, 2016), “Melitta Group—History.”❑