Thursday, June 20, 2024

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The coffeehouse phenomenon


Most every morning I meet with a group at a coffee shop in Jefferson. It’s informal – anyone who shows up becomes a member for that morning. We number anywhere from two to 10. There’s no penalty for absence or tardiness.

We have no official agenda. We discuss anything that anyone present brings up, with at least near-civility. Everyone gets a chance to comment. The conversation flows from topic to topic, and when the 1.5 hours end, we’ve pretty well covered things.

We may go back over the same ground the next day, but from different angles.

From time to time, Kathy asks me what we talked about at coffee. Generally I’m unable to tell her, either because I can’t reconstruct the conversations or because I can’t recall them. More the latter recently.

What we’re doing is carrying on a tradition that began more than 450 years ago in English coffeehouses. Some aspects of then and now are similar; some aren’t. 

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Travelers introduced the custom of drinking coffee from Arabia to England in the mid-1600s. Initially some English citizens thought it could cure headache, gout, scurvy, smallpox and excessive drunkenness. Others warned against supposed downside effects such as languor, paralysis, heart conditions, trembling limbs, low-spiritedness and nervous disorders.

Good or bad, coffee soon swept England. The first coffeehouses sprang up at Oxford about 1650 where, as “penny universities,” they offered an alternative to structured academic learning. The Oxford academic crowd, professors and students alike, could pay a penny for admission, a cup of brew and newspapers, and mingle in the common pursuit of knowledge.

Within a few years, the concept spread to London, where coffeehouses vied with inns and taverns as social centers. The informal coffeehouse setting provided one of the few venues in class-conscious England where folks of all backgrounds met and talked as equals. Anyone who had a penny could come inside. Scholars, nobility, clergy, entrepreneurs and laborers sat side by side to discuss matters of politics and philosophy.

Polite and civil conversation was considered essential to coffeehouse debate. That “rule” proved workable in part because the tradition excluded alcoholic beverages. Swearing cost the swearer a 12-pence. If a quarrel broke out, the instigator had to buy the offended party a cup of coffee. Games of chance, like cards and dice, were generally discouraged.

Because the coffeehouse brought together people of various interests, and informal education on topics of general interest prevailed, coffeehouses soon became nurseries for British financial development in banking, insurance and marketing. Lloyd’s Coffee House, for instance, specialized in shipping industry deals, thereby giving birth to Lloyd’s of London.

Another vital aspect of London coffeehouses, close to my heart, was its role as a news center. The penny for admission and a cup of coffee also included access to current newspapers and pamphlets, and coffeehouses soon became places where people of all backgrounds learned the latest events and ideas. Runners carried bulletins and newspapers around the circuit of London coffeehouses.

The Spectator, a news publication founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in London in 1711, exemplifies the power of the print media in that era. Both men were writers/politicians, Addison from England and Steele from Ireland. Soon 3,000 copies of each issue were circulated, each copy read by about 20 coffeehouse denizens, so readers by then numbered about 60,000 from all walks of life. 

Addison and Steele did no research for their musings in The Spectator, nor did they conduct any interviews. They based all their stuff on their own observations of London life, which they reported without identifying any individuals. The Spectator is considered the first general circulation newspaper, and its publication continues to this day. 

It was a mutually beneficial symbiosis. Addison and Steele wrote about who they observed in coffeehouses, quirks and all, and then circulated their material back inside the coffeehouses to the general clientele.  

Because in the 17th and 18th centuries women were generally shut out of political and current events discussions, they rarely joined the coffeehouse scene as customers, although some owners and “baristas” were women. 

Consequently, women regularly complained about the popularity of coffeehouses. Some protested that coffee made men sterile and impotent and thus contributed to the falling English birth rate. They also blamed the coffeehouses for drawing men away from home at times of domestic crisis.

The coffeehouse phenomenon started to decline during the early 1700s, and by late in that century had almost completely disappeared. The increasing popularity of tea, promoted by the government’s interest in the British East India Company, as well as the relative ease of tea preparation compared to the processing of coffee beans, played major roles in the transformation. Tea houses, frequented by clientele of both sexes, sprang up. 

In 1710 tea consumption in English society totaled 800,000 pounds per year. By 1721 that figure had exploded to 100,000,000 pounds. Within a few decades, tea had replaced coffee as the English nonalcoholic beverage of choice.

Today’s American coffee shops’ clientele includes both men and women. It seems strange to us today that that has not always been the case. 

But in terms of its purpose, the coffee shop of 2023 resembles that of the 1673 in its most important aspect —  as a venue for civil conversation on an inexhaustible menu of topics. Addison and Steele would have been proud. ♦

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