Coffee House Culture in 17th Century England

As my 32nd Birthday looms I have treated myself to a coffee machine. Unlike many Brits I hate Tea. The smell makes me retch. I am not sure if it’s the tea itself or the warm milky smell (yes I hate milk too especially warmed). I remember the first taste of espresso I was about 6 and my father let me taste his espresso after dinner in France I think it may have even been Paris. I was hocked. As someone who has her head in the 17th century at the moment I thought I should bring about 2 of my passions Coffee and History and write this post.

The Birthday Present to myself Image not my own

The Birthday Present to myself Image not my own

With the springing up of chained and tax evading multi-national corporations you could be forgiven for thinking that coffee house culture is a new late 20th early 21st century fad. Our European cousins in France and Italy have Café cultures down to a fine art, and far more charming than the Americanised franchises that have invaded the UK.

No in fact the Coffee House was in fact a 17th century cultural and political land mark on our society, the main difference between now and then is that it was a male only domain where as today coffee houses are yummy mummy havens were small children run around in abandonment screeching at the top of there lungs after having a babychino – frothy warm milk.

The birth of the Coffee house created a place were news and politic as well as business could be swoped ad serious subjects discussed as unlike an ale house or tavern there was no alchol. Coffee was initially a medicinal drink however its popularity grew as the reputations of the coffee houses and the clients grew.

Patrons could also purchase tobacco, tea or hot chocolate. It was not a place were women met it was where men of middle standing and politics met. So with the coming of Caffeine came with it the period of enlightenment in politics, culture and social reform. I always knew the world would stop if we didn’t have caffeine!

17th Century depiction on coffee house by Hogarth. image is not mine

17th Century depiction on coffee house by Hogarth. image is not mine

We have the great enlightened Francis Bacon to thank for his research and work on Coffee! He claimed that it was a “cure” for head Malancholy (agreed) Gout (not so sure about) Scurvy (not so sure about) Smallpox (quite sure that’s not right) and excessive drunkenness (agreed). Interestingly there were early scientist that feared the effect of coffee (the caffine in the coffee at any rate) claiming that it could lead to heart conditions, trembling limbs and nervous disorders. Some of these conclusions are not far from the truth.

University cityOxford established the first coffee house. What can I say coffee and students have clearly had a good relationship from the 17th century. It was a open minded Jew called Jacob that opened a coffee house called The Angel in 1650. They became known as penny universities as both scholars and no scholars alike went there to discuss theories, news, politics and life. One of the Angels patrons had been the great architect Sir Christopher Wren.

This new fad was of course to migrate to the Capital and became particularly popular after the restoration of Charles II. It was the 17th century’s equivalent of a social network but instead of on screen people went to get gossip news and politics from someone face to face.

At Lloyds coffee house deals were made with Merchants and ship owners which would later become insurers, and then the high street bank we know today.  

Another perk of the coffee house was that they often held papers and pamphlets of news for their patrons to read. A bit like a coffee shop having a news paper available to read. Two well known publications that did well in the coffee houses and are still known and published today are the Tattler and Spectator. The tone of the humour making fun at the establishment was born from their beginnings in the coffee houses of London.

Women however did not like the coffee house and blamed access drinking off coffee for low birth rates. They also disliked that the coffee house was somewhere that they could escape to at times of domestic crisis a bit like the pub or golf club is the Bain of many women’ lives today.

Coffee Beans Image not my own

Coffee Beans Image not my own

The coffee house ailed in the 18th century, changes in social attitudes towards them, social snobbery the birth of the “Gentleman’s Club” as well as the rise in the importation of tea due to the success of the East India company would have all contributed to decline in this political and social hot bed.

Unlike our continental neighbours we lost the taste for it and it was only really in the very late 19th and early 20th century that coffee became part of the social elites after dinner ritual. The poorer classes still favoured tea over coffee. The birth of instant coffee was to eventually equal this out, and as things go around in trend it is now non instant coffee and particular roasts and ways to serve it that as brought it back into the public taste.

Today in London you can not walk for more than 20 shops without coming across one or the other coffee chains one offering ice coffees or milky coffees or Italian styled strong coffees along side wifi the modern way to gather news and politics of the day via laptops, tablets and smart phones. They are now the retreat of the weary shopper, coffee morning women after coffee and cake, yummy mummys wanting gossip, students keeping warm over one coffee or those of use in search of a place away from home to sit in a comfy chair and read with cake and hot beverage. Either way its funny how history and fashions repeat themselves don’t you think.

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