The Curious Story of London’s First Coffeehouses (1650–1675)

coffee englandIn his 1621 opusThe Anato­my of Melan­choly, Robert Bur­ton wrote, “The Turks have a drink called cof­fa (for they use no wine), so named of a berry as black as soot, and as bit­ter … which they sip still of, and sup as warm as they can suf­fer; they spend much time in those cof­fa-hous­es, which are some­what like our ale­hous­es or tav­erns…”

Sev­er­al decades lat­er, read­ers would require no such expla­na­tions: Eng­land would be awash in cof­fee­hous­es, num­ber­ing in the thou­sands. The curi­ous sto­ry of how the British swapped much of their dai­ly ale con­sump­tion for this “syrop of soot, or essence of old shoes,” is told by Matthew Green in “The Lost World of The Lon­don Cof­fee House,” on the Pub­lic Domain Review.

Pri­or to 1652, when Pasqua Rosée estab­lished a small cof­fee­house in St. Michael’s Alley in Lon­don, cof­fee was vir­tu­al­ly unknown in Eng­land. Rosée, a ser­vant of a cof­fee-lov­ing trad­er to the Lev­ant, found tremen­dous suc­cess with his ven­ture and, accord­ing to Green, was soon sell­ing over 600 serv­ings a day. Above, read­ers can view Rosée’s orig­i­nal hand­bill, where the entre­pre­neur adver­tised both the ther­a­peu­tic and pro­phy­lac­tic effects of his wares on diges­tion, headaches, rheuma­tism, con­sump­tion, cough, drop­sy, gout, scurvy, and mis­car­riages. It’s a won­der any­one ever drink­ing the stuff got sick.

Cof­fee­hous­es quick­ly became pop­u­lar places for men to con­verse and con­gre­gate, and Green notes that women soon grew tired of their absence. This exas­per­a­tion mount­ed until the 1674 Women’s Peti­tion Against Cof­fee, which claimed that “Exces­sive use of that New­fan­gled, Abom­inable, Hea­then­ish Liquor called COFFEE” led to England’s falling birthrate, mak­ing men “as unfruit­ful as the sandy deserts, from where that unhap­py berry is said to be brought.” Men, as they are wont to do, expressed their dis­agree­ment, and stat­ed in Men’s Answer to the Women’s Peti­tion Against Cof­fee that cof­fee made “the erec­tion more vig­or­ous, the ejac­u­la­tion more full, add[ing] a spir­i­tu­al ascen­den­cy to the sperm.”

A year lat­er, cof­fee­hous­es found more for­mi­da­ble oppo­si­tion in the form of King Charles II, who issued the “Procla­ma­tion for the sup­pres­sion of Cof­fee Hous­es” in 1675. Charles, how­ev­er, was more inter­est­ed in their polit­i­cal effects than the spir­i­tu­al ascen­den­cy of his sub­jects’ sperm. Cof­fee­hous­es pro­vid­ed an oppor­tu­ni­ty for more mind­ful and seri­ous con­ver­sa­tions than did ale­hous­es, and allowed any­one who paid the sin­gle pen­ny entrance charge to par­tic­i­pate in dis­cus­sions — to Charles, these were the ide­al cir­cum­stances for plot­ting sedi­tion and trea­son among the pop­u­lace. Despite the King’s procla­ma­tion, the cof­fee­hous­es, buoyed by a sup­port­ive pub­lic, pre­vailed.

To read Green’s fas­ci­nat­ing essay in full, includ­ing a descrip­tion of the cof­fee­house fre­quent­ed by Alexan­der Pope, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addi­son, and Richard Steele, head over to the Pub­lic Domain Review.

Ilia Blin­d­er­man is a Mon­tre­al-based cul­ture and sci­ence writer. Fol­low him at @iliablinderman.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hon­oré de Balzac Writes About “The Plea­sures and Pains of Cof­fee,” and His Epic Cof­fee Addic­tion

Men In Com­mer­cials Being Jerks About Cof­fee: A Mashup of 1950s & 1960s TV Ads


The His­to­ry of Cof­fee and How It Trans­formed Our World

Black Cof­fee: Doc­u­men­tary Cov­ers the His­to­ry, Pol­i­tics & Eco­nom­ics of the “Most Wide­ly Tak­en Legal Drug”


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  • Dave Tjart says:

    My father would have rejoiced to read this his­to­ry of the ear­ly pop­u­lar­i­ty of cof­fee! He liked noth­ing bet­ter than to sit in the shade of his enor­mous wil­low tree, on a hot day–and drink hot cof­fee! He claimed it quenched his thirst bet­ter than cold bev­er­ages. I don’t, how­ev­er, recall him ever prais­ing its con­tri­bu­tion to the spir­i­tu­al ascen­dan­cy of his sperm …

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