Coffee Houses – The Favorite Hangout Spot Since The 17th Century England

A-penny-a-cup, coffeehouses (cafés) started becoming the go-to hangout spots in the late 1600s! Today, we take a look at how the coffeehouse culture entered the English-speaking world and, quite surprisingly, influenced the arrival of the modern newspaper.

The first English coffeehouse

Merchants and sailors from Europe had seen coffeehouses in the middle-East, ofcourse, but could not quite understand how patrons drank a beverage which was “blacke as soote and not tasting much unlike it”, until the first English coffeehouse sprang up in Oxford in 1652. The benefits of coffee – to drink as much of it as one wanted without getting drunk (and actually feeling more awake) – aided discussions and debates, and attracted the English. The same year saw London’s first coffeehouse, Pasqua Rosée, and some more of them started sprouting around the city. By the first half of the 18th century, there were over 500 coffeehouses in London!

Who visited the coffeehouses?

Coffee Houses – The Favorite Hangout Spot Since The 17th Century England
Wikimedia Commons / Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827)

Men (and only men) of any religion, occupation and class could give these places a visit. So many writers, patrons, merchants and businessmen came here, and so often, that people would send letters for them, knowing for a fact that these would be delivered to the intended recipient. Some coffeehouses gained their name after famous people of the day became regular visiters, orators and debaters there. Promoting equality and liberty, these coffeehouses stood apart from the whole of England which was still busy discriminating among its citizens. The not-so-clean settings, constant cussing and regular heated discussions were considered unfeminine(if only they knew!), So, women were barred from entering these “masculine” spaces.

What happened in these coffeehouses?

Even back then, formality was tiring. Men started visiting these coffee houses to sit in relaxed and cozy surroundings. The readings of newspapers and pamphlets sparked discussions and debates, so much so that, in 1675, King Charles II had to issue a notice that banned the circulation of any newspapers(except the London Gazette) in these hotspots! It is this ban that initiated the publication of periodicals – published twice or thrice a week – to satiate the hunger for gossip and information. These periodicals can be called the forerunners of today’s celebrity gossip columns. 

Gossip was a very common affair and everyone present would indulge in it. Journalists would send “runners” to get the latest talk-of-the-town and hype up the attendees over the upcoming news. Cliffhangers ensured sold-out copies! Coffeehouse owners would make sure to supply newspapers, pamphlets and periodicals to customers, leading to intellectual and (sometimes) comical discussions.

Alhough these coffeehouses were comfy and democratic, even business meetings took place here.

Which coffeehouses were famous and for what?

Wikimedia Commons /  Rita Greer – The original is an oil painting on board by Rita Greer, history painter, 2008

Interestingly, some of these coffeehouses were known to be exclusive hangouts for some particular professionals or the other. 

As an old version of the open-mic, poet John Dryden would regularly visit Will’s Coffee-House and exchange his satirical poems with the writer’s community. Writers Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift(does Gulliver’s Travels ring a bell?) were regulars at the Button’s Club. Publishers would gather at the Latin Coffee-House and booksellers at the Chapter Coffee-House. Tom’s was famous for hosting bankers and insurers, and Lloyd’s for ship-owners and merchants.

Why should we care?

We could very conveniently forget the history of coffee-shops, but in all truth, we can’t. Cafés are spewn everywhere around us, and so is coffee. Even though historians might differ in their views, it is doubtless that coffeehouses challenged class hierarchy and equated men of all backgrounds.  Besides, knowing our roots makes us humble(and in this case, hyperactive).

 Make sure you give your friend a walk down the lane the next time you visit a coffee shop!Oh, by the way, coffee and newspaper first thing in the morning makes much more sense now, doesn’t it?

If you like this article, also check out: The Relationship Between A Doughnut And A Cop

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