Boris Smus

interaction engineering

The Coffee-House: A Cultural History

A chronicle of coffee, especially focused on the coffee houses of 17th and 18th century England. I found it too long-winded to recommend outright. So here's a much shorter summary that captures the parts that I found most interesting.

In Turkey, coffee was used by Sufis, "as a medicinal delicacy to enable the pious and the studious to stay awake during their devotions". It was also used more socially in many coffee houses throughout the Ottoman empire: "There sit they chatting most of the day; and sippe of a drinke called Coffa (of the berry that it is made of) in little China dishes, as hot as they can suffer it. It came to symbolize freedom of assembly, so much so that "building a grand coffee-house became one of the first things Ottoman rulers did in newly conquered cities, to demonstrate the civility of their rule." Smyrma had over 40 coffee houses in 1658. In addition, it was very egalitarian in nature "because all were served in turn, no man served another and, furthermore, each was seated according to the order in which he arrived, rather than that of precedence usually encountered in the hierarchical Ottoman state."

Humble beginnings: It came to England from Turkey in the early 17th century, after some initial struggle, since some thought that "while ‘coffa’ agrees very well with the constitution of the Turk, [...] it will not suit that of the Englishman". The first coffee-man in London, Pasqua Rosee, was a lowly coachman in the service of Daniel Edwards. His customers, having bought their coffee, assembled in groups under his awning, and Rosee’s enterprise was apparently successful. He was criticized under xenophobic pretenses, and his establishment was far removed from the elegant and comfortable structures the merchants remembered from their days in the Levant. On my last trip to London, I saw a blue plaque celebrating his 1652 ‘coffee-house’, locating their memorial on the walls of the Jamaica Wine House.

Coffee House: Daniel Edwards and Thomas Hodges, however, could see the commercial potential of coffee and were unwilling to let pass the opportunity Rosee’s shop presented. Eventually, a proper coffee-house emerged, with dedicated, specially furnished coffee room, with its fires and stoves for warmth and preparing coffee, was a retail revolution, although such places quickly lost their strangeness. In the fanatical environment of the Interregnum and Restoration, the coffee-house to many was a haven of civility, but also of revolution, debate, philosophy, puzzles, socialization, equality, and upward mobility.

Criticism: But of course there were critics, many skeptical of coffee house style debate, which was often seen as shallow, critiqued as falling into four particular qualities of ruined discourse: gabbling, gossip, wheedling and idleness. Is it just a waste of time? ‘at this place a man is cheated of what is, by far more valuable than Mony, that is, Time’. On the other hand, "the wakeful sobriety of coffee made the coffee-house the natural ally of this puritan ideology of work and labour". Coffee houses in Turkey came under threat when the kadis signed a protocol describing the properties of coffee and declaring it unlawful for Muslims. It was later repealed. In England, "The King was propelled to issue the proclamation [banning coffee houses] in 1675 in response to the increasingly fractious nature of political debate". This attempt ultimately failed, and "the defence of the coffee-houses, it was understood, was a defence of freedom of speech." Later in England, it was rumored "that coffee there was widely deployed as a contraceptive" in Persia.

Coffee houses played a part in many of today's important institutions:

  • News: "on entering, customers were as likely to call out ‘What news?’ as they were to order a dish of coffee."
  • Auctions: "were conducted ‘by an inch of candle’, in which a section of wax candle was lit, and bidding continued until the flame went out, with the final bid carrying the lot."
  • Stock brokers: "jobbers bought and sold securities on their own account. These men made a ready market by facilitating buying and selling, because if someone wanted to sell, jobbers ensured they could always find a buyer."
  • US central banking: "group of prominent financiers to discuss proposals for a bank to provide credit for the fledgling republic, modelled on the Bank of England."
  • American Revolution: "In America the coffee-house was also associated with news and rebellion through the eighteenth century."

End of an era: In the late 17th century, "Tea was much more expensive than coffee and it remained a rarity long after coffee was ubiquitous in London". It later surpassed coffee, but remained something that was "more often associated with women, with consumption in the home and with luxury: and most often in a combination of all three". At its peak, there were 500 coffee houses in London, but eventually Coffee started to wane. "Many blamed tea, and the passing of the coffee-house was certainly accompanied by an unprecedented rise in tea drinking among the British people". As early as 1750 coffee consumption in Britain had been eclipsed by that of tea. Tea was monopolized by the East India Company, which was "able to use its political influence to manipulate the system of tariff preferences to distort the trade." By the early nineteenth century almost six times as much tea was drunk per capita as coffee. In 1888 a City businessman wrote that the golden age of coffee-houses, as depicted in the light literature of the last century, has passed away for ever.

European rivals: "Paradoxically, while coffee-houses waned in Britain, various Contintental rivals – the French café, the Italian caffè and the Viennese Kaffeehaus – prospered, both in reality and in the mind even of the British." While Manet seems to celebrate café life, works like Interior ofa Café, The Café Concert (1879) and Corner of the Café Concert (1878) also suggests a powerful sense of anomie: in the sociable spaces of the city few people seem to connect with each other. But there are exceptions, such as Café Central, in the Herrengasse, had a central court with a high glass roof, originally constructed to serve as an exchange for the merchants. Countless journalists, lawyers, school-teachers, tradesmen and merchants, made the Kaffeehaus not simply a place to socialise over coffee and read newspapers, but also a central location for their intellectual life. Still the closest analogy for Viennese Kaffeehaus in England was with the tavern or public house.

Espresso revolution: by WW2, "coffee disappeared off the market for more than a decade, to be replaced by foul-tasting, adulterated imitations and substitutes". After the war, Riservato started the Gaggia Experimental Coffee Bar, known also as the Riservato, in the summer of 1953, modeled after Italian Caffes. Within a year a legion of exotic new espresso bars had opened across London and the provinces: The Times noted ‘the mushroom growth of espresso coffee bars in London’ in October 1955. In San Francisco’s North Beach an Italian immigrant opened Café Trieste in 1957. The ‘espresso revolution’, as Pearson called it on BBC radio in 1956, changed more than just the appearance of coffee retailing, reintroducing some of the sociability once associated with the coffee-house. But, "The ubiquity of coffee bars, and the sameness of their design, also mitigated their revolutionary sociability for Laski, who suggested that many of the coffee-bar habitués would be as happy in a traditional tea shop." The coffee bar was not simply a home for working-class or middle-class culture, but a space where young people of different social stations mixed freely, confusing the hierarchies of value both of Marxist and conservative analysis.

Seattleization: In 1966 a Dutch immigrant, Alfred Peet, opened a whole-bean coffee bar at the corner of Vine and Walnut in Berkeley. As the home of the Beat poets and student protest, cafés and coffee-shops played an important part in nurturing San Francisco’s cultural revolution in the 1960s. In 1970 three college graduates who shared an enthusiasm for Peet’s coffee banded together to open a coffee shop in Pike Place Market in Seattle, doing their own roasting. One of their number, Jerry Baldwin, came up with ‘Starbuck’, a name with no special meaning to them other than a pleasing sound and look. By 2003, Starbucks was more than twenty times larger than its nearest rival in the American market Schultz (Starbucks CEO) refers repeatedly to ‘the romance of coffee’. These deep-seated associations, he argues, can be evoked through aroma, but also through reiteration.

Got milk: At Starbucks, and other Seattleised coffee-bar chains, ordering a coffee has become a farcically complex operation requiring specific and artificial terms. ‘wet’ means without foam, ‘skinny’ means to use skimmed milk, ‘with wings’ means the coffee is to take away. Although the chain’s consumption of milk is vast, almost no mention of its origins, suppliers, chemistry, preparation or flavour. But milk was rarely added to coffee before the nineteenth century.

Anti-social: The sociability encouraged by Starbucks is based on consumption, not conversation. The interior arrangements of the coffee shop recalls the communal space of the early coffee-house, but atomises people into distinct individuals, promising customers peace and security from others, not encounter and discussion. A plaintive symbol of these ambitions is seen in the encouragement coffee-house chains have given to wifi by which means individuals using their own laptops can participate in the on-line ‘community’ of the Internet, all the while remaining oblivious of the living world around them. In the sanitised, lactified form of the branded chain, the coffee-house is no longer oppositional, rebellious and dissident. This is their profit, but our loss.

Yet these will o’er their Jewish Liquor
About Religion Jar and Bicker;
And rave till grown as Piping Hot,
As the dull Grout o’er which they sot.
— Vulgus Britannicus: or The British Hudibras