If you walk into a coffee shop today, you’ll find people engaged in an assortment of activities: checking the news, writing essays, reading stories and chatting with friends. Throughout history, these are the ways people have spent their time in coffee houses. We may get our news from the internet instead of a neighbor and write on a laptop instead of on paper. We might read on a Kindle instead listen to a storyteller, text our friends instead of talk with someone next to us and stalk old acquaintances on Facebook instead of people watch. People have always used coffee houses for getting news, exchanging ideas, listening to stories and visiting with friends, though. Even hanging out at a coffee shop for hours while spending almost nothing isn’t new — Englishmen would sit in a coffee house all day and only pay a penny for admittance.
The following is a look at the history of coffee houses, beginning with their origins in the Middle East and tracing them through England. Throughout this survey, there’s one common theme: coffee houses have always served as a hub for exchanging ideas and conducting business. The only difference today is that we do this on computers while sitting with a cappuccino.
Coffee Houses Originate in the Middle East in the 1500s
Coffee houses originated in the Middle East, one of the first places coffee was grown. The documents that we have suggest that coffee houses originated in Mecca in the early 1500s or late 1400s. We don’t know when the first one opened, but they were commonplace enough in the early 1500s that imams banned both coffee houses and coffee from 1512 to 1524. Their concern was chiefly that the political sentiments expressed in coffee houses challenged the current rule. Coffee houses were primarily a place for political gatherings.
From Mecca, coffee houses spread to:
- Vienna in 1529 — which is where sweeteners were first added to coffee
- Damascus in 1534
- Constantinople in 1555
The writings of Jean Chardin, a French traveler in the 17th century, are one of the first European documents we have that mention coffee houses. They describe coffee houses as places for news, political criticism, “innocent” games (not gambling), telling stories and preaching from “molla” (moral teachers). His portrays coffee houses as hectic places, where all of these things might be going on at once.
Coffee Houses Come to England in the 1600s
The 17th Century was an exciting culinary time for England. Tea, chocolate and coffee were all introduced to England in the 1600s. The first English coffee house opened in 1652, and by 1700 people were counting between 1,000 and 8,000 of them. These numbers might have been exaggerated, however, as an official survey in 1734 only tallied 551. Nevertheless, coffee houses quickly became popular places to conduct business and formed an integral part of English society.
English Coffee Houses Were Different from Taverns
Part of the reason coffee houses became so popular were because they promoted sobriety. Many people (wisely) primarily drank little beers or weak ale at taverns at the time, because water was rarely potable. Boiling water for coffee (and tea), however, killed bacteria and didn’t result in a mildly intoxicated public.
Coffee houses were much more conducive to conducting business, and quickly became known as centers of commerce. Taverns became known as rowdy places for drinking and gambling, but coffee houses were respectable establishments where men conducted their daily affairs. For a single penny, a man could gain admittance to a coffee shop and stay as long as he like — there wasn’t an obligation to purchase anything. Soon, coffee shops were known as “penny universities.”
Notably, women weren’t permitted in coffee shops, unless they owned or worked in them. Even a respectable lady might stop at a tavern if she needed to, for they were required by law to serve food and provide lodging. Coffee houses, which didn’t have these legal requirements, weren’t a place for even an unrespectable woman, though. Some women took exception to this custom and published a petition, “The Womens Petition Against Coffee,” which was mostly tongue-in-cheek but does provide this lively description: “….the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE.”
A Legacy That Remains Today
Today, coffee houses serve the same purposes they always have: people go to their local cafe to get news, work, read and talk with friends. We, as mentioned, just engage in these activities online.
England’s coffee houses, however, have left another legacy. As they became centers of commerce, some coffee houses became very prominent and specialized. Theologians and scholars would gather at one, stock brokers at another and sea-faring merchants at another. Some notable coffee houses from the 1600s include:
- Edward Lloyd’s coffee house on Tower Street in London, which was a gathering place for mariners and insurers and became Lloyd’s of London, an insurance company that’s still in business today
- Jonathan’s coffee house in London, which was the first site of the London Stock Exchange
- The Tontine Coffee House in New York, which was the first site of the New York Stock Exchange