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The Social Life of Coffee

The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse

Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    The Social Life of Coffee
    Book Description:

    What induced the British to adopt foreign coffee-drinking customs in the seventeenth century? Why did an entirely new social institution, the coffeehouse, emerge as the primary place for consumption of this new drink? In this lively book, Brian Cowan locates the answers to these questions in the particularly British combination of curiosity, commerce, and civil society. Cowan provides the definitive account of the origins of coffee drinking and coffeehouse society, and in so doing he reshapes our understanding of the commercial and consumer revolutions in Britain during the long Stuart century.

    Britain's virtuosi, gentlemanly patrons of the arts and sciences, were profoundly interested in things strange and exotic. Cowan explores how such virtuosi spurred initial consumer interest in coffee and invented the social template for the first coffeehouses. As the coffeehouse evolved, rising to take a central role in British commercial and civil society, the virtuosi were also transformed by their own invention.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13350-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. A Note on Styles and Conventions
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    Hard as it is to believe today, there was once a world without coffee. Coffee was entirely unknown before the middle of the fifteenth century, when it began to make its way into the drinking habits of the peoples living in the Red Sea basin. After its discovery, the rise of coffee seems to have been inevitable. It became one of the great success stories of the changing consumer habits that reshaped the early modern world. Although it was controversial in every society into which it was introduced, coffee soon found its place alongside more traditional drinks such as beers,...

  6. PART I Coffee:: From Curiosity to Commodity

    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 5-15)

      In a letter from Aleppo, written in 1600, the clergyman William Biddulph became the first Englishman to write about coffee. He noted that the Turks’ “most common drinke is Coffa, which is a blacke kinde of drinke, made of a kind of Pulse like Pease, called Coava, which being grownd in the Mill, and boiled in water, they drinke it as hot as they can suffer it.” Ten years later, George Sandys put his own observations on this strange Turkish beverage in print; he found it “blacke as soote, and tasting not much unlike it.” For both Biddulph and Sandys,...

    • 1 An Acquired Taste
      (pp. 16-30)

      The first printed reference to coffee in a European text occurred in a medical text by the French scholar Carolus Clusius (or Charles de l’Écluse in his vernacular) entitledAromatum et simplicium aliquot medica-mentorum apud Indos nascientum historia(1575). Clusius himself had learned of coffee several years before, perhaps as early as 1568, when his fellow botanist Alphoncius Pansius in Padua described the strange new plant in a letter along with some sample seeds. At nearly the same time that Clusius was introducing the coffee plant to the European medical community, the German physician Leonhard Rauwolf was traveling in the...

    • 2 Coffee and Early Modern Drug Culture
      (pp. 31-54)

      If the virtuosi were the first to introduce coffee to the palates of early modern English consumers, it did not remain confined to their select circles for long. Coffee was quickly assimilated into the fluid and diffuse “medical marketplace” of seventeenth-century Britain which promoted the commercialization of new and exotic cultural products. Its use was promoted by apothecaries, physicians, retailers, and most important, by the consumers of health-care products themselves. In a buyer’s market for medicine, where the demand for effective drugs and services was great and the supplies of such were so various as to be virtually unregulated, new...

    • 3 From Mocha to Java
      (pp. 55-78)

      The virtuosi who played such an important role in discovering and promoting the virtues of coffee drinking in the seventeenth century were not ultimately the agents of its commercial success. This required the intervention of the profit-seeking overseas merchants who had the capital and the wherewithal to begin trading in coffee abroad and thus supply the English market with the new commodity. One of the ironies of the early commercial history of coffee is that the merchants who ultimately stood to profit most handsomely from the growing popularity of the drink were much more hesitant in recognizing its potential as...

  7. PART II Inventing the Coffeehouse

    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 79-88)

      It should be easy to identify what a coffeehouse was at the dawn of the eighteenth century: a place where people gathered together to drink coffee, learn about the news of the day, and perhaps to meet with other local residents and discuss matters of mutual concern. Yet beyond this simple rubric lay a wide variety of places. The coffeehouse was an innovative new institution that emerged in the mid-seventeenth century, but it was built on a number of familiar templates. The coffeehouse was a public house much like the alehouses, inns, and taverns that had long formed a part...

    • 4 Penny Universities?
      (pp. 89-112)

      Because England’s virtuosi were the most vocal proponents of coffee consumption as well as the earliest and most enthusiastic patrons of the coffeehouses, their interests, attitudes, and modes of sociability were bound to influence the culture of the coffeehouse. Indeed, the peculiarly “virtuosic” emphases on civility, curiosity, cosmopolitanism, and learned discourse made the coffeehouse such a distinctive space in the social world of early modern London. But virtuoso culture itself was transformed by its increasingly close relationship with the commercialized and urban elements of the coffeehouse milieu. We must pay close attention to this reciprocal relationship between the community of...

    • 5 Exotic Fantasies and Commercial Anxieties
      (pp. 113-146)

      It wasn’t every day that one could see a rhinoceros in seventeenth-century London. On 22 October 1684, John Evelyn got lucky. He went with the ex-ambassador to Spain, Sir William Godolphin, to see what was most likely the first rhinoceros — or was it a unicorn, he wondered — that was ever brought to England. “Twas certainly a very wonderful creature,” he remarked, though he thought it most “particular & extraordinary” that her eyes were placed “in the very center of her cheekes & head, her eares [were] in her neck.” Her teeth were “most dreadfull,” and her horn “was but newly...

  8. PART III Civilizing the Coffeehouses

    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 147-151)

      The coffeehouse was a different sort of place than other public houses in early modern Britain. Unlike the tavern, the alehouse, or the inn, it was a novel institution. As such, it was treated differently from the more familiar forms of watering holes. Although the coffeehouse carried an air of distinct gentility that set it apart from other common victuallers and public-house keepers, the trade also faced a unique image problem as a result of its association with the dissemination of seditious rumors or “false news” among the general populace, along with meetings of persons disaffected to the established government....

    • 6 Before Bureaucracy
      (pp. 152-192)

      On the evening of 11 May 1703, Nicholas Blundell, a Catholic gentleman from Lancashire, paid a visit to Will’s Coffeehouse on Bow Street in Covent Garden. Will’s was at the time the center of London’s literary life, and it had been made famous as the favorite haunt of John Dryden. Dryden was no longer alive by the time Blundell had ventured into Will’s for the first time, but Blundell must have had great expectations for the evening. He did not meet any of the London wits who were trying to succeed Dryden as the doyen of the English literati, such...

    • 7 Policing the Coffeehouse
      (pp. 193-224)

      The preceding chapter has discussed at length the various ways in which the coffeehouses of post-Restoration Britain became ensconced within the social and political order. Rather than viewing the coffeehouses as natural and habitual centers of opposition to the status quo, it has been suggested that they are better understood as having developed according to the prevailing customs, conventions, and indeed the legal regulations of early modern society. Yet the new coffeehouses remained controversial throughout the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. If coffeehouses were so well integrated into the social order, one might well want to ask why they...

    • 8 Civilizing Society
      (pp. 225-256)

      Consider these two images of the coffeehouse (Figures 36 and 37). One is sober and serene, the other chaotic and conflict-ridden. In the first image, the coffeehouse is portrayed as a site for polite conversation, the cultivation of connoisseurship in the arts — note the pictures on the walls and the conversation that they seem to provoke among the coffeehouse patrons — as well as the quiet contemplation of the daily news or the latest political pamphlet. In the second print, we find a mob scene. This “coffeehouse mob” is situated in a very similar setting — note the recurrence of the pictures,...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 257-264)

    Like the ever rising middle class or the ever separating masculine and feminine spheres, it seems that every era has had its consumer revolution and its own public sphere. These concepts are so capacious that they can be applied to almost any time and any place with a little imagination. All societies past and present have been “consumer societies” in the sense that they all require a variety of goods and services. What varies is the sorts of goods and services required, as well as the values placed on them at different times. Even Neolithic economies, we have been told,...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 265-310)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 311-354)
  12. Index
    (pp. 355-364)