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Coffee and Coffee Houses

The British have always been traditionally associated with Tea, but they were the first European country to embrace coffee commercially, and were the nation that introduced it to America. Between 1652 and 1725 the British made coffee their main drink, and embraced the social aspect of the coffee house with complete enthusiasm.

Europeans had their first taste of coffee when merchants imported it from Turkey to Venice around 1615. Before then coffee was unheard of in Europe and merchants of the time traveling in Turkey may have taken part in transactions that often took place in their coffee houses. However, it had a rather shaky start. Catholic priests and monks, horrified at how popular the drink was becoming, wanted it banned as a heretical Muslim drink. Much to their surprise Pope Clement VIII decided to taste some coffee and promptly declared that "...this Satan's drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall therefore cheat Satan by baptizing it...".

 It quickly spread throughout Europe, arriving in France where it was introduced to Parisian society in 1650. Britain quickly followed suit and in 1650 in Oxford (by a Turkish Jew named Jacob) and 1652 in London (in St. Michael's Alley, Cornhill) the English opened their first coffee houses . Approved by the Protectorate regime, coffee soon gained popularity and by 1660, with the restoration of Charles II coffee houses were beginning to become a common sight in both London and some of the larger British cities. By 1670 coffee houses began to be associated with specialist clientele where each house served their own specific customers, and some placed signs outside to show passer-by the kind of clientele  it attracted. The class and type of clientele varied according to the locality, trade and current fashion. The houses were sometimes used for lodge meetings, assignations, planning crimes, attracting prostitutes, dissecting animals for science, debating philosophy and science and of course to buy and sell a variety of stocks, shares and trade goods newly arrived in London. Nicknamed 'Penny Universities', it was said that you paid your penny for your coffee and learned many new things in an afternoon or evening. However, with the exception of the dame de comptoir who took your money, as well as the occasional young girl who poured your drink, coffee houses were still a strictly male preserve in the 17th Century.

  In 1674 outraged women, fed up by their husbands spending more time in a coffee house than at home issued the famous 'Women's Petition Against Coffee'. Amongst the reasons listed was '...coffee leads men to trifle away their time, scald their chops, and spend their money, all for a little base, black thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water...'. Of course the gentlemen responded with petitions of their own, too numerous to mention here. Some of their arguments included '...moderately drunk, coffee removes vapours from the brain, occasioned by fumes of wine, or other strong liquors; eases pains in the head, prevents sour belchings, and provokes appetite...' and the '...you may well permit us to walk abroad, for at home we have scarce time to utter a word for the insufferable din of your ever active tongues.' So, the men went out (escaped?) to the coffee houses, and the women drank it at home with a selection of female friends to exchange gossip.

By now, coffee houses were hugely popular and became a major feature of daily social life in the capital. Inside they had communal benches in rows or small corner alcoves if the customer was conducting a rather private conversation - be it with a stock broker or a whore. Upon your arrival you would be encouraged to place some money in a tin marked 'To Insure prompt service' - (hence 'TIPS', another British invention) at either the door where a boy would be waiting to take your coat, or by the dame de comptoir inside (see top picture). This would usually depend on how busy and fashionable the coffee house was. Once you have ensured you've got service, you simply sat down at whatever table took your fancy. Usually people would scan the room for any interesting conversations that were taking place. As soon as you sat down either the boy or a '...a beautiful, neat, well-dressed, and amiable, but very dangerous nymph.' would serve you coffee, ask if you want a pipe and/or tobacco, as well as the in-house broadsheet or newspaper with the latest news and gossip (read one here). Coffee, like the more expensive tea, was drunk from Chinese rice bowls. Purpose made cups were a much later invention. Cesar de Saussure was amazed at the liberty of speech hotly debated by all classes: 'All Englishmen are great newsmongers. Workmen habitually begin the day by going to coffee-rooms in order to read the latest news. I have often seen shoeblacks and other persons of that class club together to purchase a farthing paper.' You then either joined in with the conversation or quietly read your paper. Writers were impressed that the rank and social standing of society disappeared at the communal tables. One contemporary, Tom Brown, described the scene as '...the place where several knights-errant come to seat themselves at the same table without knowing one another, and yet talk as familiarly together as if they had been of many years acquaintance. They have scarce looked about them, before a certain liquor as black as soot is handed to them...' All people were there to discuss matters of general interest, be it the latest play at Covent Garden, a sexual scandal or political quarrel. Commoners could read or hear about juicy gossip and goings on at court, something they would never have access to anywhere else. They created an open form of sociability 'providing places of promiscuous resort' - unregulated gatherings at which gentlemen, citizens and the lower classes mingled. Amongst the numerous coffee houses that sprang up between 1670 and 1700 many became famous. The ones that stood out the most were:

  • The Grecian: Close by Will's, on Deveraux Street, the Grecian was home to philosophers and scholars such as Newton, Halley and Sloane, who went there to discuss the latest meeting of the recently founded Royal Society.

  • Jonathan's, Lloyds and The Jamaica. These city houses went on to become the centers of London finance, but during the 1670's were described as 'places of commercial gambling, where The Gazette and The Observator (in-house broadsheets) lay generally unturned, where the lottery-lists and ticket-catalogue were alone perused, and where the blank of the needy man or the benefit of the wealthy merchant were objects of more wrath and malice than Sunderland's conversion...' Lloyds attracted maritime stockbrokers and insurers  from the start, and adverts in coffee house broadsheets have survived advertising various ships and their contents that were up for auction at Lloyds on a weekly basis. Little surprise that it was to end up as Lloyds of London, famous the world over.

  • Garraway's and Child's. Located in Change Alley and St. Paul's churchyard respectively, these were frequented mainly by those in the medical profession. The walls were hung round for privacy and the tables covered, in inverse proportion to the respectability of the house, with announcements of popular pills, drops, lozenges and dentifrices. Private rooms were available for consultations or interviews, with many people who were just visiting London paying these houses a quick visit if something ailed them.

  • The Puritan's Coffee House. Located in Aldergate street, the conversation here was purely political. The old and faithful dwelt on the days of the Civil Wars and the Commonwealth, and openly dreamed of revolution to return England back to those times. Needles to say, someone up the road opened The Restoration...

  • Wills. Located at No. 1, Great Russell Street this was one of the most famous houses of the time. Under Dryden's patronage it became noted for its 'wits' and 'critics'. A contemporary satirist stated that second-rate writers who went there felt honoured and puffed as if  'they had the honour to dip a finger or a thumb in Mr. Dryden's snuff box.' Indeed, many people loved name-dropping by stating that they had spent the afternoon at 'Wills' when visiting friends or relatives.

  • The Cocoa-Tree became a famous Tory haunt, Ozinda's played host to Jacobites and their sympathisers, while the Smyrna and St. James's coffee houses hosted the Whigs.

  • Man's. It stood on the riverfront right behind Charing Cross. None but the most obnoxious were refused entry, and it was considered to set 'the standard of taste'. A contemporary observer described it as 'At the end of the entry, a few steps led to an old-fashioned room of a cathedral tenement furnished like a knight's dining room, with clean and polished floors and nut-brown shining tables on which stood rows of steaming dishes of coffee and wax candles...it was the resort of place-hunters, bribe-lovers and Puritan-haters, and frequented by French agents and mysterious messengers for whose special use some side rooms were reserved.'

  • The Widow's Coffee House. Located in Islington which then was mainly fields and a small village on the outskirts of London, it was supposedly overseen by the widow Nell Gwynne. It was frequented by London Apprentices who were its special clientele. The house was described as being slightly shabby and old fashioned, with brown paper being substituted for some of the window panes, an uneven and cracked floor and an antique fire place, but it was clean, friendly and welcoming and always had pint-pots of coffee on the go.

Coffee finally reached Vienna late in 1683, after it had endured a siege with the Turks. It was here that coffee in the modern sense was invented. As the Turkish troops withdrew from the region, they left vast quantities of coffee behind. A Polish Army Officer, Franz Kolschitzky, had previously lived in Turkey and was at the time the only person who knew how to use it - so he promptly claimed all the captured stocks of coffee. He opened coffee houses and quickly became rich. He is credited with being the first person to refine the brew by using a form of filter to reduce the grounds, and also adding milk and either honey or sugar to sweeten it. His coffee house also became famous for the pastries and sweets served with the drinks.

It was said that there was one coffee house on virtually every street in London by 1700, with around 2,000 of them being recorded being in business (more than today's trendy coffee houses), with fashionable areas like Covent Garden having quite a few on one street. Some observers of the period wrote that to find one you had to simply close your eyes and follow the smell of the coffee grounds wafting out the door. 

Around 1710 the first attempts at a filter was introduced. A fine lawn bag called a 'biggin', filled with coffee and held in with a drawstring was suspended into the pot. Unfortunately, the finer grounds still got into the coffee, but it made a great difference to the amount of grounds swirling around the pot from before. It is recorded that people were using old socks to do the job until then, provoking someone to invent the biggin.

By 1714 and the death of Queen Anne the British had introduced it to the America's, with coffee bean seedlings shipped to the West Indies and New York opening its first coffee house. In London the coffeehouses had reached the height of their popularity. Women  comtoir's began to patent coffee mixtures and brewing techniques. Even a well-known brothel-madam caused a sensation by getting in on the act. Meanwhile, houses such as Lloyds began to employ bouncers on the doors to keep their clientele exclusive.

Here concludes a brief history of coffee and coffee houses. If you want to learn more and live in England, then visit the Tea and Coffee Museum in London, located near to the Globe Theatre, or visit their web site  here.

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