Coffee makes us severe, grave, & philosophical.–Jonathan Swift, 1722
Without a single Starbucks on the horizon, the ancient Abyssinians (Ethiopia) had to do something. Legend has it that the beans & leaves of bunn, as coffee was called, at first were simply chewed, but the inventive Ethiopians quickly graduated to more palatable ways of getting their caffeine fix. They brewed the leaves & berries as a weak tea…. Finally, probably in the 16th century, someone roasted the beans, ground them, & made an infusion. Ah! Coffee as we know it (or a variety thereof) finally came into being….
In the first half of the 17th century, coffee was still an exotic beverage, & like other such rare substances as sugar, cocoa, & tea, initially was used primarily as an expensive medicine by the upper classes. It wasn’t until 1689 when the Café de Procope opened in Paris, that coffeehouses throughout continental Europe evolved into egalitarian meeting places….
Twenty-five years after they were banned by Charles II in 1675, there were more than two thousand London coffeehouses. They came to be known as ‘penny universities,’ because for that price one could purchase a cup of coffee & sit for hours listening to extraordinary conversations. Now, for a lot more money, you have to endure someone else’s inane cell phone conversation. Edward Lloyd’s establishment catered primarily to seafarers & merchants, & he regularly prepared “ships’ lists” for underwriters who met there to broker insurance contracts. Thus began Lloyd’s of London, the famous insurance company.
Colonial Philadelphia’s London Coffee House, located at the corner of Front & High Streets near the city’s docks, was established in 1754 by William Bradford, a Philadelphia printer. Like Lloyd’s of London, insurance contracts were underwritten. “By 1758 the Insurance Office at the Coffee House had two clerks on duty every day… to take care of writing out policies of insurance & securing underwriting signatures” (Ruwell). In addition to mercantile transactions, real estate deals were also brokered along with slave auctions from the 1750s until the passage of Pennsylvania’s abolition laws in 1780. Needing larger quarters, befitting the largest, most cosmopolitan city in British North America, Philadelphia’s merchant cartel built the Merchants’ Coffee House, later known as “City Tavern,” a popular meeting place for members of the Continental Congress.
During the late 1760s, the coffeehouses of colonial North America also became political centers referred to as “seminaries of sedition” by Tory sympathizers.
Coffeehouses, according to Jurgen Habermas’ The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (1962), were one of the primary vehicles in the 18th century in which an absolutist “representational” culture was replaced with the rational-critical dialogue of the public sphere (Öffentlichkeit).
- Pendergrast, Mark Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee & How it Transformed Our World (NY: Basic, 1999)
- Ruwell, Mary Elizabeth 18th Century Capitalism: The Formation of American Marine Insurance Companies (NY: Garland, 1993)
- Thompson, Peter Rum, Punch, & Revolution: Tavern-Going & Public Life in 18th Century Philadelphia (Philadelphia: UofP, 1999).