Coffee Shops, 17th Century Style

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Coffee shops of the 21st century range from eclectic haunts of creative writers to ganja infused hangouts in European countries. Yet three centuries ago, coffee shops were revolutionary hot spots that were far more impressive than the Wi-Fi hot spots of today. Forget about those shots in the dark or no whip, soy mocha lattes. The kind of java served during the late 1600s tasted like “syrup of soot and essence of old shoes,” according to the History Channel. Tastes made no matter, though, as these coffee houses were the founding rooms of modern society.

Get Down to Business

Coffee houses during the 1650s were all the rage in London. In fact, according to “The Lost World of the Coffee House,” London boasted the second largest number of coffee houses in the world, second to Constantinople. Coffee shops replaced pubs as a social hangout, thanks to one major difference–caffeine. As you can imagine, guzzling alcohol first thing in the a.m. is not exactly the best way to bring your A-game to business dealings. Caffeine, on the other hand, gives your brain the jolt it needs. This newfound beverage sensation provided the folks of London with a sobriety that they had never experienced before and it was society-changing.

The days began with reading the news at coffee houses, which served as reading rooms for businessmen looking for auctions, sales, or sailings. As a result, several prominent businesses got their start in coffee houses including:

  • Sotherby’s and Christie’s Auction Houses
  • London Stock Exchange
  • Lloyd’s of London insurance market

The Decline of Penny Universities

During their heyday coffee houses, or penny universities, were the place to go to make business dealings and to hear the latest gossip. However, the caffeinated beverages, while tasting like dung, were considered a drug. This bothered people, namely women of the prohibition bent: wives got tired of seeing their husbands hanging out at coffee houses, instead of staying at home. To these women, coffee houses were the equivalent of pubs and, therefore, in need of abolishment. By 1674, Women’s Petition Against Coffee spread the word that drinking coffee made “men as unfruitful as the deserts whence that unhappy berry is said to be brought.”

Seriously.

But don’t let those bitter women take all the blame for the decline of penny universities. King Charles II was even on board the ban of coffee. He scorned coffee houses, stating that these were “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of his Majesty and his Ministers.” No matter that the king was drawing substantial earnings from the sale of coffee. What bothered the king was the gathering of like minds of intellectuals and businessmen, including Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Edmund Halley, the latter of the comet fame. Coffee houses were the place where great ideas in science, math, politics, and the like got their footing.

Let Them Drink Tea

Like all great runs, things started going south. In 1750, Queen Catherine, wife of Charles II, did what her husband could never do. She made coffee unfashionable, replacing it with the much more profitable tea, a beverage that brought with it ties to the East India Company. The trade afforded by the EIC caused the domestic market of London to explode, leaving coffee grounds in its wake.

Coffee Houses to Coffee Shops

The next time you are in a coffee shop penning the next great novel, remember your roots. Appreciate that your coffee doesn’t taste like cow crap, even if you have to subject yourself to the commercialization of coffee shops today. Also, while the world’s finest minds may not be at your coffee shop on the regular, coffee shops of modern times have begat some of the world’s finest writing.

Just ask JK Rowling.

Miranda B likes her coffee like most people like fine wines. Part of this passion relates to her interest in coffee culture and its relation to the world around her.


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