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Coffee Houses

Penny University of Yesterday

So great a Universitie
I think there neer was any
In which you may a scholar be
For spending of a Penny.
News From The Coffee-House
(Broadside of 1677)


In the 1700s, there were over 2,000 coffee houses in London alone. In the latter half of the 18th century tea became the common drink, but the establishments still were called “coffee houses”. One would pay a penny upon entry and then indulge in a cup of coffee, later tea, and the talk of the day. The coffee house was the place where scholars, tradesmen, politicians, poets, writers, and the like would meet to share new ideas and discuss current events. One did not ask where a man lived, but which coffee house he frequented. It is intriguing to note how the conversations that took place in these coffee houses influenced the politics and literature, and the social and commercial life of those times.
For instance: The Committee for the Reform of Parliament met at Miles where there were many heated debates. Addisons famous letter-box was put up at Buttons to receive contributions from the public for Addisons paper, The Spectator, which was an introduction to journalistic writing.
Insurance underwriters met at Lloyds Coffee-House to make themselves available to seafarers, forming Lloyds of London. “Stock-jobbers” met at Jonathans, and after the decline of coffee houses, formed themselves into a “stock exchange”.
Because of the shortages of coins in England, coffee house owners issued their own coins, as was done by many tradesmen in the 17th century. Often these coins were made of brass, pewter, copper and sometimes leather bearing the issuers name, address, or some reference to their trade. These were usually a “half peny” These pennies were used as fees upon entering coffee houses–thus, the name Penny Univerisities. If you had a token, you were welcome.

Characters at the Coffee Houses
“All People May Here Be Seen” was a motto inscribed in many of the two thousand coffee houses in London. In an era of social strata the coffee house was a place of mixed company. In addition to the “Wits,” the nickname given to poets and literary folk, the “Grave” were those who preferred talking quietly or reading alone. The “Rabble,” as in “rabble-rousers,” was the name given to politicians in the coffee houses. Coffee houses attracted royalists, loyalists and anarchists, country bumpkins and the local vicar, not to mention quack doctors who sold alternative remedies.
Specialty coffee houses were designed to attract interest groups. There was the New York Coffee House, for those interested in American trade; The Steele Yard Coffee House, for steel merchants; the Beaux, for people interested in fashion; and the Virtuosi, for those interested in the new sciences. Anyone was welcome to coffee and discussion.

Coffee and Tea House Influence
The coffee and tea houses provided sobriety, diversion, literary centers, and forums for political discussion. Before the emergence of coffee and the coffee house, many people drank beer or wine for breakfast. James Howell wrote about the positive effects that coffee houses had on business. “The dizziness they (alcohol) cause in the brain made many unfit for business.” The rise of the coffee drink and the coffee house transformed English ideas.
Tea time was created for coffee, tea, and the sandwiches. In the sixteenth century, this did not exist. The drink itself inspired a refined daily custom. The coffee and tea house had the greatest influence in the development of a free press, the creation of the literary essay as a genre, the founding of interest clubs, and the roots of big British business.
In 1660, the Dutch were quick to take English models of the coffee house to America. And the French, in 1775, were successful in transplanting a coffee plant to Brazil. This coffee plant was the first in the Americas, the forerunner for what would become one of the major coffee-providing- nations in the world.