The first London coffee houses

Coffee became a political issue in England for a second or three–or the places where people drank it did. We’re talking about the seventeenth century, when people–men especially–wore clothes that were even sillier than whatever clothing you disapprove of most today. 

Think I’m exaggerating? This was the age of the three-cornered hat. Where, I ask you, did the runoff land when you wore one in the rain? My best guess is that it divided, without fear or favor, onto the shoulders. Unfortunately, I haven’t experimented. I should. We have no shortage of rain lately. All I’m missing is the hat.

I focus on the men’s clothes not because the women dressed more sensibly but because not many of them set foot or floor-length skirt inside coffee house doors. The only way in, if you were of the female persuasion, was to work there or own the place. Or to be disreputable enough, but even then most of them would be closed to you. 

Irrelevant and out-of-season photo: pears on our tree this fall.

So coffee houses were overwhelmingly male establishments, places they gathered to read; to talk business, religion, politics, and philosophy; and above all to caffeinate themselves so they could do more of the above without nodding off. 

The coffee, according to contemporary sources, was awful. One man described it as a “syrup of soot and the essence of old shoes,” which may help explain why the British took to tea. The point, however, wasn’t the taste but the caffeine–which is lucky, because once you get into the habit you want more, even if it tastes of old shoes.

And of course the company. 

Coffee made its first public appearance in England in 1637, in Oxford, where it was sold in a coffee house. It reached London in 1652, and by the 1660s coffee houses were multiplying like humans in the age before birth control. By 1675, 3,000 were in business around England. 

It was decades before any male slept a wink. 

That last information dump was from Wikiwhatsia, which I try not to rely on heavily, but part of what I’m telling you is drawn from a BBC radio show, In Our Time, which gave three experts half an hour to talk about coffee (it was fascinating), and the show’s website links to Wikiwhoosits, so I’m going to bend my already-too-flexible rules. (You’ll notice the word try at the beginning of the paragraph.) Screw it. If it’s good enough for the experts, it’s good enough for me.

The show’s available via the website if you want to listen. I recommend it. And even though one of the experts has the same last name as I do, she’s not a relative. Very few people who share my name are. Long story, which we’ll skip.

Like most substances that have just come on the market, coffee was promoted as the cure for pretty much everything. Think of it as the newly legalized cannabis of its day. As one of the experts put it, “It cured anything you wanted it to.”

It was also something you could drink that didn’t get you drunk. Water, remember, was polluted. Most people drank ale or beer and–we can assume–were at least slightly drunk most of the time. Small beer was less alcoholic than strong beer and ale, but alcoholic it was. In coffee, finally, Londoners had a drink that kept them sober. In “The Lost World of the London Coffee House” (the link’s above, turning the words “contemporary sources” blue, and doing it without a swear word in sight), Matthew Green credits coffee with laying the foundations of England’s economic growth in the decades after its introduction. I have no idea if he’s right, but it’s an interesting thought. 

To get into a coffee house, people paid a penny. For that they got not just coffee (for all I know, that cost extra) but conversation, the latest newspapers, which were just starting to appear, and whatever pamphlets were making the rounds. Each place had its own tone, clientele, politics, and leanings. Some were intellectual hotbeds, gathering writers, philosophers, thinkers. In others, workingmen gathered to read and talk politics. They were called penny universities. The entrance fee would have put coffee houses out of reach of the poorest workers, but even so I’ve found a quote from one writer who describes shoe-blacks and assorted riff-raff gathering to talk about topics that I imagine the writer thinking were far above them. You can hear his disapproval leaking into the spaces between the words and I can’t swear that a bit of exaggeration about the men’s occupations didn’t sneak in with it. Make what you will of the contradictory information. 

Other coffee houses gathered businessmen from one field or another, making them places to do deals and exchange the gossip of their trade. The London Stock Exchange began in a coffee house. So did the insurance group Lloyd’s of London as well as Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses.

Some high-brow coffee houses became private clubs. They gave way to the gentlemen’s clubs of the eighteenth century–and no, gentlemen’s clubs didn’t have anything to do with lap dances, although they were probably just as despicable, in their staid way.

And to make sure we don’t leave anyone out, some coffee houses attracted criminals. Not the kind who did respectable business. We’re talking about acknowledged criminals here. In some you could gamble. In others you could get a haircut and listen to a lecture on abolishing slavery, or so one source swears.

Don’t like the hair in your coffee, sir? Most customers feel it improves the taste.

One coffee house was the conduit to a nearby whorehouse. In another–which didn’t last long–you could only speak Latin. The Folly of the Thames was moored on the river and you could dance on deck. Which leads me to repeat that it wasn’t that no women could enter any of them, only that no respectable ones could–although in some no woman could at all.

Yeah, the good old days.

Having said that customers sorted themselves out according to interest, trade, and so forth, I’ll dance right on and contradict myself, since the sources I found do: Some talk about people mixing and debating without respect to title or class. Customers were expected to take whatever seat was available, which meant sitting next to whoever was already there. Tables were shared, not private. Whether you were sitting with people like yourself or people from a class that made you break out in hives, the coffee house ethos was that you talked to both acquaintances and strangers. 

It was because coffee houses were places to talk that they became a political issue. If you went to the right ones, you could hear the latest court gossip, even if you weren’t a courtier. And court gossip was inherently political. This made coffee houses a force of democratization–or sedition, depending on your point of view, and that’s where they got into trouble with Charles II, who in 1675 tried to ban the selling of coffee (also tea and sherbet) by royal proclamation. The punishment was to be £5 for every month a shop defied the ban, and if it continued “the severest of punishments that may by law be inflicted.” 

The ban never came into effect, though. Charles was pressured by his ministers–coffee drinkers, the lot of them, for all I know–to withdraw it.

But before we start cheering this force for democratization, let’s mention that coffee also drove the spread of slavery (the Caribbean and Brazil) and colonialism (Java and Ceylon). As far as I’ve been able to find out, that didn’t become a political issue in England. Maybe the news about what it took to grow the stuff didn’t leak into public consciousness. Maybe people looked the other way. It’s surprisingly–and horrifyingly–easy to do.

Have I mentioned how fond history is of irony?

Britain, Tea, and Hot and Cold Running Stereotypes

Am I calling up a lazy stereotype when I say that Britain’s a nation of tea drinkers? I know: This isn’t the most important question you’ll face today, but stay with me. I’ll make it worth your time (she said rashly).

A while back, someone read part of an as yet unposted blog entry I’d written about tea and told me I was indulging in stereotypes. She mentioned beer (people do drink a lot of beer here; I’ll give her that), and Starbucks, and the country’s changing habits. She urged me to go deeper into the culture. She didn’t mention Starbucks’ untaxed profits, and I admit they’re not what everyone’s mind would race to in this context, but if you want to go deeper into the culture, they’re sitting there like the Titanic’s iceberg and I can’t type the company’s name without mentioning them. And don’t even get me started on Amazon.

A cup of tea, in motion. Photo by by ŇÄĵŵÅ Ă. Мǻŗǻƒįę.

A cup of tea, in motion. Photo by by ŇÄĵŵÅ Ă. Мǻŗǻƒįę.

She signed off by saying her husband had just made her a cup of tea, which either means she has a sense of humor (she hadn’t noticed mine, so I did wonder) or undercuts her argument, or possibly both. Either way, she left me thinking about stereotypes. Because they’re hard to resist if you’re trying to be funny—and the longer I work on this blog, the better I understand how deeply trying and funny dislike each other.

But I don’t want to stereotype stereotypes. They’re not all the same. Off the top of my head I can break them into two categories. And as soon as you say something like that, someone else comes along and breaks them into seven categories, and someone else comes up with forty-three. Settle down, everyone. It’s not a competition. All we need for this discussion are the harmful kind and the harmless kind. Think of them the way you’d think of spiders, or snakes: Some of them are venomous and some of them aren’t. Remember at the start of the Iraq War, when the French said, Guys, I don’t think this is an entirely good idea, and suddenly the geniuses who (as it turns out) helped destabilize the Middle East were calling them cheese-eating surrender monkeys? That’s not only a very weird stereotype, implying, among other things, that Americans think there’s something suspect about eating cheese, but it’s ugly. (I know, it started ironically, on The Simpsons, but by the time I’m talking about it had cut its ironic moorings and was loose in the world, untethered.) It’s not the most harmful stereotype I ever heard, but it’s surely one of the stranger ones in its category.

Now compare that to the claim that Britain’s a nation of tea drinkers. They’re different, aren’t they?

Is Britain a nation of tea drinkers? We have two cafes in our village, and both have invested in coffee machines. You know the kind. Huge silvery things. You stand behind them and you might as well be piloting a spaceship.

“Potential customer on the road, Captain.”

“Deploy the tractor beam, Lieutenant.”

So customers are tractored in, and they’re grateful. They order lattes and americanos and mocha half-decaf double skim vaguely Italian-sounding whatsaccinos, and they sit at tables in (if they’re lucky) the sun and sip them. But what they’re sipping are indulgences—the kind of thing people will invest in and think, I really needed this, or, Isn’t this nice, sitting here with a coffee? because it’s something special. Follow them home, though, and most of them will drink tea. If they have coffee in the house, it’ll be instant. How do I know? By what people offer me in their homes. By what they choose when they’re in mine.

But forget the cafes. Go to a village event—the kind the village has been holding since caffeine first came to these shores, raising money for the hospices, or the air ambulance, or the church—and you’ll have a choice of tea or coffee. And the coffee will be instant. Because that’s how it’s always been done and that’s how it’s still done. Any place has a tea pot. Any place can boil water. Not every place has a coffee pot.

What happens in the U.S.? Park yourself at the counter of any greasy spoon in the country and ask for coffee. The waitron will turn, grab a pot from a coffeemaker and pour. It’s already made, it’s waiting for you, and most of the time it’s no older than you are, so it’ll taste—well, it’ll taste like coffee. Whether that’s good is a matter of opinion. But it doesn’t matter. They go through enough of it to keep a pot on hand.

Two pots, actually: regular with a black (or is that brown?) handle and decaf with an orange one.

Ask for tea, though, and the waitron will have to check with the boss, because it’s been six years since anyone ordered a cup. I worked in a place like that. The boss probably kept a box of teabags stashed somewhere, but I never had a reason to ask about it.

That’s what life’s like in a nation of coffee drinkers.

But I hate being called superficial, so let’s consider countervailing trends: Before I left the U.S., I’d begun to worry about the younger generation’s moral fiber, because so many of them were getting their caffeine from soft drinks and energy drinks and cold bottled coffees or (yes, I admit it) teas with vacation-sounding names and enough sugar to fill a bathtub, condensed somehow into a fist-sized drink. This struck me as childish—self-indulgent, even. Adulthood involves learning to drink things that don’t taste good, and then learning to like them, and teaching other people to like them, and judging people on the basis of whether they like them. Weren’t these kids ever going to grow up? And more to the point, when it came time to give them house-warming presents, was I ever going to be able to give them coffee mugs?

I should probably pause here and say that I’d stopped drinking coffee by the time I passed this judgment on an entire generation, but I didn’t get my caffeine from cold, sugary drinks, so it was different. And I had once been a coffee drinker, so whatever I did after that was okay, because I’d survived the initiation.

I never claimed that this made sense. What I’m trying to do is make a point, which is, defensively, that I’m capable of going deeper into a culture. And still exaggerating. Which is the essence of stereotype. And the essence of humor. Or, yeah, I’m exaggerating again. It’s the essence of some humor.

If you go deep enough into any culture, you’ll find something to laugh at. Without dismissing it or being ugly.