What a pleasure a coffee house daily bestows!
To read and hear how the World merrily goes.

The Coffee House, James Miller

What do Lloyd's of London, Johann Sebastian Bach, The Rape of the Lock, the cogers society, The French Revolution, Sir Isaac Newton, the world's oldest newspaper, and the Internet have in common? They are all linked to the seventeenth and eighteenth century coffee house, a peculiar institution that proved an underlying factor in the transition of Western Europe toward modern concepts of literature, art, economics, and government. The focus of both deathly serious discussion and relentless mocking, coffee houses fostered a blossoming of interest and discussion oddly reminiscent of the modern World Wide Web, their best historical parallel.

Coffee was a jealously guarded secret of the Arab world, developed as an alternative to (nominally) forbidden alcohol. First introduced to the Middle East from Ethiopia via Yemen and eventually arriving in Turkey, it was traded into Europe during the mid-seventeenth century, but not embraced. Because of its origins in Muslim lands, many members of the clergy and government in the first European nations it reached wanted the drink banned as heretical. Pope Clement VIII saved coffee from the obscurity of an illegal substance. Upon tasting a cup of the brew, he declared, "This Satan's drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall cheat Satan by baptizing it." With the blessing of the Holy See, coffee spread throughly through Western Europe and took a foothold in the emerging urban cultures of the seventeenth century.

While initially considered a medicinal drink, the stimulating effects of coffee and its perceived improvement of intellectual acuity made it attractive as a social drink. In comparison to beverages such as beer and wine, coffee was vastly preferable for efficient business, possessing no particularly ill effects save for slightly jumpy nerves. For an emerging middle class increasingly dependent upon the mind instead of the body to accomplish a day's labor, coffee was perfectly suited in both novelty and contrast to lower-class alcohol to become a sensation.

England's first coffee house was established in Oxford in 1650, however it was "Pasque Rose," established in London in 1652, that truly started the craze for coffee. A Greek proprietor receiving coffee shipments from a friend travelling in Turkey opened his establishment to the public, drawing the urban elite. Taverns decried the competition as first a satanic brewery, then a fire hazard, then a poisoner, but to no avail. By 1663, there were 82 coffee houses in London proper alone. By the turn of the century, 500. Coffee houses offered a civilized counterpart to the prodigious taverns of the lower classes. They were decorated with comfy furniture, gilt decorations, and bookshelves filled with eminent works of literature; a far cry from the rowdy atmosphere of the pub. Such practices as toasts to health were banned, and hostile quarrelers paid the penalty of having to buy all patrons an order of coffee, thus laying down a precedent for sober, cleanly, and friendly establishments. But, importantly, coffee houses charged very little for admission, and nothing for information. This became their greatest strength.

While this distinction of civilization drawing the line between the middle/upper classes and the lower classes was an attraction, it was not the true source of the exploding growth of coffee. Across Europe, a new passion for Science and Reason was seizing the hearts and minds of the young generation. It was time to establish a new order for the world, and the coffee house became the forum for this message. Coffee fuelled a sudden and spectacular information exchange. Location led to specialization, and certain kinds of clientele grew to be associated with each establishment. Much like internet discussion boards, one began to define oneself intellectually by the coffee houses one frequented. They were the "Penny Universities," allowing for any education for only the penny price of admission. And the varieties of subjects were spectacular:

  • Miles' Coffee House was a center for the greatest political minds of the day. A discussion group known as the Amateur Parliament or the Coffee Club of the Rota was founded there in 1659. Jonathan Swift remarked (without sarcasm) that he was "not yet convinced that any Access to men in Power gives a man more Truth or Light than the Politicks of a Coffee House." This certainly seemed true of the Amateur Parliament. Participants would debate forcefully on the issues of the day, with all given a say according to their desire. When the debates were ended, a novel invention aided decision as to the winner: a ballot box. Called the 'wooden oracle', all Parliament members would cast an anonymous vote which was then tallied. This informal discussion group proved to be a forerunner to the modern idealized version of parliamentary democracy.
  • Edward Lloyd's Coffee House, founded in the 1680s, was a center of economic experimentation and innovation. The open business climate of the coffee house spawned novel variations on lottery, insurance, or stock schemes. Located near the wharf, it attracted ships' captains, shipowners, and merchants. Naturally, nautical insurers took the opportunity to offer propositions and make deals, also following the latest maritime news. Some began to rent booths in the coffee house, and by 1771 a group of 79 regulars founded the Society of Lloyd's, which became the modern-day backing establishment Lloyd's of London.
  • Will's Coffee House, in Convent Garden, hosted the literary minds of the day. The central focus of the establishment was the brilliant poet John Dryden, whose circle of friends and like-minded artists discussed the prose, plays, and poems of the day. Alexander Pope, later a famous poet in his own right, attended lectures by John Dryden and gingerly sipped coffee beginning at the age of twelve.
  • After Dryden's death in 1700, the literary scene transplanted itself to Button's Coffee House, revolving around satirists Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. Pope's epic/comical poem The Rape of the Lock sprung from coffee house gossip, lending to its both frivolous and portentous air.
  • Jonathan's and Garraway's cofee houses were the watering holes for the stockbrokers and brokers gathered around London's Royal Exchange. A group of traders, desiring to make Jonathan's a membership-only establishment, were rebuffed and decamped to another building, later developing into the London Stock Exchange.
  • Child's Coffee House was the gathering place for doctors and those interested in medicine. As well as serving coffee, various medical or pseudomedical experts sold pills, prescriptions, or used private rooms of the establishment to give examinations.
  • The Grecian Coffee House hosted the likes of Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley, who once dissected a dolphin on the premises as part of a public exhibition.
So well known were many coffee houses' associations that the Tatler, a London newspaper founded in 1709, organized its articles under coffee house subject headings:
All accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment shall be under the Article of White's Chocolate-house; Poetry, under that of Will's Coffee-house; Learning under... Grecian; Foreign and Domestick News, you will have from St James's Coffee House
Coffee houses were great producers of paper, with broadsides, pamphlets, handwritten scrawls, books, and newspapers distributed generously and dispersed through the whole network of coffee establishments. This phenomenon was of even greater importance outside of the relatively free political climate of England. Faced with fierce censorship by the governments of Austria and France, coffee patrons in those countries distributed illicit political and literary tracts by means of the coffee house, circumventing print regulations. From one of these regular broadsheets, "Wienerische Diarium," was founded the Wiener Zeitung, considered to be the world's oldest continually published newspaper.

As may be expected, the political frankness of the coffee houses led to their wary regard by the powerful of Western Europe. Many, such as King Charles II, attempted to ban the establishments all together. In his 1675 proclamation, he declared that coffeehouses had

very evil and dangerous effects... for that in such Houses... divers False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majestie's Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm.
Faced with widespread disregard for his decree, the government settled for six month licenses of £500 mandatory for every establishment. This too ignored, a vague demand that coffee houses refuse entry to spies and mischief makers had to suffice.

In Paris, the government took a more active role in suppressing the simmering discontent coursing through the coffee house scene. All of the establishments were infested with spies, and many Parisians were suddenly dragged away to the Bastille for a comment made in the coffee house. Hundreds of pages of reports detail coffee house conversations collected by a vast network of royal watchers. Despite this effort, nothing could stop the gathering tempest of the revolution. Two days before the storming of the Bastille, Camille Desmoulins roused his country, standing atop a coffee house table, two pistols brandished, with his historic appeal "Aux armes, citoyens!"

With the coming of the East India Company and a massive influx of tea, the coffee house declined in England. Most establishments turned to serving tea, though still called coffee houses, but the intellectual burst was over as the empire made a transition toward obsession with colonialism. In other regions of Europe, however, the coffee house continued strongly. In Vienna, coffee houses were intimately associated with the musical establishment, playing host to many modern, renowned Classical composers. Viewed by many as a vice, coffee was an addiction for the Viennese, both men and women. Johan Sebastian Bach immortalized the Viennese coffee house among his secular cantatas with "Schweigt Stille, Plaudert Nicht," or, the Coffee Cantata. Telling the tale of petulant daughter and caffeine-addict Lieschen and her exasperated father Schlendrian, it was first performed in a coffee house.

The effect of the coffee house on the middle class intellectuals, business men, and artists of the seventeenth and eighteenth century can be best understood, oddly, by a parallel with the Internet. Like the Internet, coffee houses sprang from obscurity to a major cultural phenomenon. They provided an open environment for discussion on a wide variety of topics with diverse participants. They supplied the opportunity for insightful peer review of writing, fostered lightning-speed gossip and rumor, gave rise to new business models (many fanciful failures, but many wildly successful), and allowed amateurs to take control of the press and engage in their own journalism. They were free, sometimes contentious media, looked upon with some disdain and wariness by government officials frightened by obscenity or sedition. While access required payment, information was free. In an ironic twist of history's hidden hand, coffee houses and the Internet have now joined with the introduction of WiFi hotspots for wireless connection.

The coffee house, an Arab introduction, revolutionized information exchange throughout Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The effects of the coffee houses are still felt in modern times, from prestigious businesses to economic innovations to musical works to literature. The black brew energized the intellectual spirit of Western Europe.


The original, insightful comparison of 17th and 18th century coffeehouses with the modern Internet belongs to the writer of the article "The Internet in a Cup" for The Economist's December 20th, 2003 issue. Because all writers for The Economist remain anonymous, I cannot specifically cite him or her by name. I built upon the analysis with historic research and interpretation.


"The Internet in a Cup," The Economist, December 20th, 2003.
Lipking, Lawrence, Monk, Samuel Holt. "John Dryden," The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol I. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.
"Penny Universities of Yesterday, Penny University. http://pennyuniversities.com/History1.html
Gladnick, P. J. Defining intellectual ferment in coffee house culture. http://mn.essortment.com/defineintellec_rybo.htm
Hagoort, Karlijn, Gadenstätter, Lisa. "The Legend of Coffee," Starbucks versus Coffee House. http://www.univie.ac.at/Very-Vienna/magazin/artikel/36/sechsunddreissig.html
Rogov, Daniel. "Coffee - Myths and Realities, Strat's Place. http://www.stratsplace.com/rogov/coffee_myths.html
Notes on the further origins of coffee within the Middle Eastern world from Noung, and the helpful note that Turkey is not an Arab country. I gratefully accept a few skullbashings with the cluebat.
ponder noted another innovation of the coffeehouse—the British cogers society. Once again, to my dismay, my American is showing for all to see.

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