Coffeehouse Culture: A Little Bit of History

June 20, 2018

Coffeehouse Culture: A Little Bit of History

We trust that you’ve probably heard the well-repeated fact that it was the TV show “Friends” that promoted and popularised the coffee shop as a “hang out spot” to many generations of people from the 1990’s up until now. It’s very hard to argue against that and many modern culture experts believe it to be true. Brands like Starbuck rode this wave and helped to proliferate the culture of coffee shops as being the place to meet, hangout and discuss the topics of the day. Whether they be international news or just personal gossip. This is still going strong and we’re all regularly meeting for coffee; whether it be in a Starbucks or your favourite local cafe (we personally prefer the small local variety).

This is the modern way we see coffee culture but coffee, and specifically the coffeehouse, has had a much deeper history and influence on our society. This is what we’re going to turn our attention to today. We’re going to take a look at the coffeehouses of 17th and 18th century Britain and discover what impact they had on society there.


A Bit of Background 

Coffee first came to Britain in the 17th Century and was introduced by travellers, before it became popular and large scale importation began. A little bit of cultural background here to begin: literacy rates in England were around 30% for the population. Reading and writing was a skill set only really possessed by the aristocracy and the leadership of the church. As a result the only written words the large working class population ever got to hear, before coffeehouse culture exploded across the country, were those read from the Bible during mass.


The Birth of Change

The first English coffeehouse was started in Oxford in 1650, and one that was established in 1654, Queen’s Lane Coffee House, is still in existence today. These first coffeehouses were nicknames “penny universities” because anyone could pay a penny and get their admission and their coffee; it wasn’t rare for students to spend almost as much time here as they did in actual university. Here in the coffeehouses they would have access to newspapers and discussions with their fellow peers and likeminded individuals. Initially, the coffeehouses were populated by these scholars and students convening to read, debate and share knowledge but this was all set to change.

This period was the start of a theme that the culture of coffeehouses would perpetuate and eventually expand, amalgamate and help spur the Enlightenment era in Britain. Coffeehouses had a different air about them to the pub or tavern where the intoxicating nature of the beverages did no good at facilitating wit or debate into the afternoon or evening. This was noticed and steps were made to continue to keep the coffeehouse a place for civilised conversation and interaction by banning alcoholic beverages.


The Budding Flower

The coffeehouse spread quickly to London where it was popularised and promptly became a part of English culture. Clubs focused around political or academic topics were being formed and they were meeting frequently in coffee houses. These meetings were open to anyone who wished to join and debate on the subject of choice. The English Civil War had just finished with the king's execution in 1649 so the country was awash with political discussion, from the aristocracy to the men working the fields. Politics wasn’t the only topic on the table with matters of philosophy, science and culture being civilly debated about over cups of coffee by people from all classes of society.

It didn’t matter whom you were; a man in rags could find himself sat around the same table as a bishop, an earl and other members of the aristocracy. Because they’d all paid their penny to be there everyone was treated with the same civility and respect and one mans opinion carried just as much weight as the next. Many of these people would never have said a word to each other had they passed in the street. Newspapers were often read aloud to groups of people, for two reasons 1) because it put everyone on the same page at the same time and 2) because many in attendance lacked the necessary skill of reading.

During the 17th century, there were many restrictions on published material, everything had to go through the Crown and get approval before it went into print. Coffeehouse culture allowed members of society to find likeminded people, share knowledge and debate not only what was being published in the newspaper but also topics which were outside the general spectrum of news. This all changed in 1695 with the Lapse of the Licensing Act.

The Blossoming

The Lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695 started the print revolution in England and, as a result, knowledge became a freely traded and hot commodity during the early 18th Century. Anyone and everyone could print whatever they wanted and quickly niche publications and periodicals started springing up from all over the country. The coffeehouses were the hubs where people came to read and share this information, which was made available for sharing by the proprietor in the same way newspapers were in the century prior.

Groups were formed focused on different scientific, political and philosophical topics and people banded together to produce publications to draw in more like-minded thinkers. It was here that some coffeehouses started to be defined by the groups that gathered there.

Manners and morals were also hot topics of discussion up and down the country thanks to the two most popular periodicals of the age the Tatler and The Spectator and lessons were taught in coffeehouses, reviving the name of “penny universities”. These could be lessons in anything from dancing, to poetry, to Latin. With social status being ignored and everyone being treated as equals in the coffee houses there was a rise in a bourgeois public sphere (akin to the 20th century “rise of the middle class”) with discussions honing and evolving opinions up and down the country. People, en masse, were becoming more informed, more intellectual and were developing niche interests that a majority of the population had never encountered before the presence of the coffeehouse environment.

The Result

Toward the end of the 18th century the coffee house began to die off, tea was becoming more popular and the government was more interested in the tea trade that the British East India Company effectively had a monopoly on. Tea took over culturally, being easier to brew at home and more inclusive (women were not allowed into coffee houses), and coffee and thus the all-inclusive nature of the coffeehouse, died off.

The coffeehouse brought the English speaking world a new general level of intellect as well as a higher standard of literature and literary criticism. It showed that men from every walk of life could sit down as equals and civilly debate topics without their class getting in the way.

Coffeehouse cultures real influence on the enlightenment is still debated amongst scholars, but with such an explosion of knowledge and discussion, it’s hard to argue that these little shops and this strong beverage didn’t have a lasting effect on the English speaking world and the society within it. Even if it was only significantly popular for around 100 years.

We think that in a way this coffeehouse culture is still alive and kicking, and if you come down to Tumut River Roasters in the Tumut River Brewery there’s always someone interesting here whom you can swap opinions with and debate topics of your choosing.

Image Credit: Public Domain Images: PIXNIO