Coffeehouse Culture in 18th-Century London

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You walk into a coffee shop and look around. People of all descriptions are sitting at tables, reading the news, talking about the world, and drinking dark strong cups of coffee. Scenes like this play out in coffee shops all over the world in 2013, but this scene could just as easily describe one of the many coffeehouses in 18th-century London.

According to British historian Matthew Green, the first London coffeehouse opened in the middle of the 17th century and rapidly gained a following. In those days, coffee was served strong, black and gritty. But Londoners took to the beverage, and by the early 1700s there were hundreds of coffee shops in the city.

You probably have a brilliant friend who can't function without a cup of coffee. The 18th-century was no different. Coffee spurred debates and stimulated some of the era's great thinkers—Sir Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys and Sir Hans Sloane. But not all of the era's great thinkers. Women were excluded from coffeehouses, which caused a fair amount of jealousy.

Just like today, 18th-century coffeehouses had different personalities. Some attracted the fashionable elite. Some attracted scholars, some attracted working men, and some were full of scientists. Some coffee shops doubled as gambling dens, some as barbershops, and some as brothels. They made some members of the upper class uneasy because they allowed opportunities for people of different classes to talk and share ideas. This was a scary prospect if you wanted to keep your place in the power structure exactly the way it was.

Today's coffee drinkers generally don't have to inhale secondhand tobacco smoke, and now we are less likely to be interrupted by an outspoken stranger when we're chatting with a friend over an espresso. But otherwise, London's 18th-century coffeehouse culture seems remarkably similar to the coffee shops we enjoy today. You probably couldn't get a triple venti nonfat caramel macchiato in 18th-century London, though.

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October 3, 2013 - 7:44am
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