For Italians, it’s caffè , for the Dutch koffie , café for the French, kaffee for the German speaking Austrians and kávé for those who speak Hungarian, kaffe in Sweden’s shops. To us, it’s coffee, and it’s a pervasive part of our daily culture. The global names for this dark beverage vary very little, and have become synonymous with the places in which we buy them.
Those places, and this product, have played an, often underrated, role in the process of European history over the last several centuries. The beverage came to the Western world with the Turks, who accidentally left it behind in Austria and made it trendy in France. As coffee plants spread across the globe, the bean and the boiled beverage made from it slowly began to find its place in the European palate.
Working geographically, this project follows the history of coffee, and most especially the establishments that served and continue to serve it, in particular countries that developed intimate relationships with this controversial stimulant. From its economic relationship to the The Netherlands to Italy (and Catholicism’s) coffee battle, to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, to the invention of the the espresso machine and lactose’s influence on regionalized coffee preferences, this single commodity and all the industry surrounding it becomes a perfect lens for considering many of Europe’s most historical moments, and for discovering new moments of historical relevance.
If you clicked to this point, it’s probably because you believed this would be all about coffee. And while I suppose it is, it is more about people — specifically the people who consume this favorite vice each morning.
The history of coffee in western culture follows the trajectory of some of our most major human moments, from religious strife to the initiation of major trade routes to the Enlightenment and beyond. Like the proverbial fly on the wall, it’s been there — and though not alone in this front row to history it seems to stand up and demand attention for the way it pushed right onto the stage at all the right moments.
The consumption of food and drink are compulsory part of being human, perhaps one of the most fun parts, and the tiny niche of coffeeshops and our coffee consumption became the lens through which I sought to consider human interaction and our communal history. It is the similarities, and the differences, between each culture’s addressing of cafes and coffee shops that makes
If you picked up this book, expecting it to be about coffee, then I anticipate you happen to be the type of person who drinks a lot of it. Coffee is unique in that, unlike many other things we consume daily, it requires extremely specific conditions to grow. The growth of the coffee industry, therefore, has gone hand in hand with advancements in trade and agriculture.
Perhaps the fact that I’ve reached a point in my life where a cup of coffee is a given each day, but I’ve found that I feel incomplete without a cup in my hand. They say to write about what you know, and I know coffee. Today, coffees shops are expected to have free wifi access and become a tangle of charging cords and patrons in headphones, each engaged in their own philosophical discourse or scientific exploration. Coupled with my intense infatuation with Europe, this project grew and mutated into a blurred passion piece.
My first introduction to Europe, and to the true cafe, came at the defining age of sixteen. Having forgone the pomp and circumstance of a blow-out sweet sixteen, I was surprised with a very large coffee table book and a roundtrip ticket to Paris. I had never been to Europe, had no reason to ever expect this sort of gift, and completely no idea what to expect from this lucky turn. Ten months later I was boarding a plane at Newark International Airport, and seven hours and twenty minutes after that I was deplaning at Charles De Gaulle, just outside Paris with my mother.
Our tiny hotel room was on the floor where the roof of the building met the walls, gifting us a very tiny balcony. From there I could stand and have the view of Paris I had only ever dreamed of. Dominated by shades of off-white walls, grey rooftops, black shutters, green leaves, and cloudy skies, Paris in the spring was like something out of a fairytale. And of course it is, the cliches must have started somewhere. Even the tiny road signs, with their navy backgrounds and green decorations seemed more lovely than the brutalist signs I had grown up with in New York. The room wash washed in further shades of white, and overwhelmingly my memories of Paris seem overexposed and dominated by the calming airy-ness of the color white.
Forget that the walls inside seemed to slant, or that the bed was hardly a few inches off the ground, or that the shower was little more than a trickle. From the moment I found myself in Paris, I was doomed. My wanderlust was born long before, but it was properly christened on a balcony in France.
In his work Daily Life in the Vienna of Mozart and Schubert, French essayist Marcel Brion wrote:
“One might write an interesting analysis of capital cities by describing the nature of cafés in each country, and one would obtain at the same time a considerable source of information of the psychology, the habit and feelings of different races by examining what a café means for each of them.”
I seek to do just that, and what follows here is the roots of any good work of writing: the months of reading and researching the area, finding out how this all got started, and what it is that lead coffee across seas and into the major cities of Europe centuries ago.
The first coffeeshop in England was opened in Oxford in 1651 or maybe 1650, and even today there is still a cafe on the spot. The alleged proprietor was from Lebanon, named Jacobs, and apparently Jewish. The Grand Cafe, an established part of the current facades along high street, claims its place as the original location of Jacob’s coffee house. They claim the date 1650 and the name Jacobs, and give the name “The Angel” to the establishment from which coffee was sold. It was, apparently, a part of a larger establishment that housed travellers, which would explain coffee’s route there in the first place.
The rigorous academic nature of Oxford fostered the proper environment for groups of men, because at the time coffee houses were largely reserved for them, to group together to discuss the academics of the day. Historians tend to refer to the coffee house as a major institution within the broader “public sphere” in England. The concept of the public sphere hinges on an idea of open exchange of information and thought.
The city of London was founded somewhere around AD 43 by the Romans as “Londinium,” and perhaps of they had coffee they could have held onto it. The valley of the Thames was officially referred to as Londinium in AD 60 BC in a Roman history. Walking the streets of London today, there is hardly a reminder of it’s Roman roots, save the portions of the Roman wall from AD 200 that can be seen from the platforms that rise around the Tower of London, as well as near the famed Barbican near the aptly named street “London Wall”.
The first coffee house opened in London in 1652 in St. Michael’s Alley. Though it is quite possible that “coffee house” was, at this time, a very literal term. Speculation suggests that this first London purveyor of coffee simply sold from a window in a house.
A July 1903 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine gives the name of a man, Pasqua Rosée. Rosée was, according to the magazine, the greek coachman to a Turkish merchant who began selling the coffee under a sign “of his own head”. Gentleman’s, however, also acknowledges the claim of Don Saltero’s in Chelsea on Cheyne Walk, with the caveat that in the seventeenth century the Royal Boroughs of Chelsea and Kensington were not often considered a part of the proper city of London. These neighborhoods are now home to some of the most posh of the capital city, including (but not limited to) the members of the royal family who resides at the aptly named Kensington Palace tucked among Hyde Park. Those areas are now intrinsically connected to the image of London that is portrayed, the white townhomes of South Kensington with their pillared front steps, the broad roads and black cabs.
Rosée’s establishment was, however, located properly in the City of London, and today St. Michael’s Alley is still within the one square mile block that make up “The City,” which has become London’s financial center. The city is only about a square mile wide, full of winding streets that seem to perpetually come together in five and eight way intersections. A saturation of red double deckers heading out towards the further reaches of Greater London wind around corners it seems they can’t possibly make. At the heart of it all is the Royal Exchange, flanked by the entrances to the Bank tube stop descending underground. Just a short walk from the Bank of England, across the street from Leadenhall Market, and up the hill from the spot were the disastrous fire began that destroyed most of London in 1666, Rosée’s cafe would have been the root for the massive boom of coffee houses in this area. It also would have been engulfed in the flames that destroyed the medieval city within the reaches of the old Roman wall. In total, 436 acres of London burned, including 13,200 houses and 87 out of 109 churches. The area was rebuilt, and it was this rebuilding which gifted the skyline of London the now iconic dome of Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.
But though it may have been the first, Rosée’s shop did not become the most famed, nor was it at the time the most influential. The city of London has that shop to thank for the introduction of the drink itself, but so many other areas to thank for the industries which came out of the enjoyment of having a cup of coffee. The city was, and in many ways still is, a man’s world, home to the industry and trade centers, excluding the domestic sphere of the majority women of London.
The growth of the coffee industry was exponential in the city of London. In the half a century after the first shops, nearly 2,000 were opened throughout the city. Through the English revolution and into the eighteenth century, these coffee houses brought together intellectuals to discuss the everything plaguing their minds, professional and otherwise. The first English periodical published with the name The Spectator was published in 1711. This iteration only ran for a year, and was quite different from the modern conservative weekly. In their tenth volume, publishers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele set forth their mission for the publication:
It was said of Socrates, that he brought Philosophy down from Heaven, to inhabit among Men, and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of closets and libraries, Schools, and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables and in Coffee-houses.
A popular nickname for the coffee house became “penny university,” due to the fact that a cup of coffee cost only a penny, and the flow of information and intellectual discussion in coffee houses ran rampant. Each took on it’s own identity, based in its most frequent patrons, and those different coffee houses gave way to imperative London industries.
In the midst of the full swing of England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 culminating in the overthrow of the monarchy and subsequent leadership of Oliver Cromwell), Lloyd’s Coffee House opened on Tower Street during the winter of that same year. A few years later, it would move to 16 Lombard Street — the center of London’s bustling oceanic trade culture.
Edward Lloyd, who opened the coffee house, thus gave a place for the men of the industry to meet and discuss business. London offices were not common, and though the Royal Exchange was a frequent meeting place the coffee houses offered a place for business, and for pleasure (in both providing food and drink and the occasional illicit encounter).
But the coffee house in England did not exist unchallenged. Attacks came from home and from the crown, both equally scathing retorts from positions of personal offense. The first came from London’s women in 1674.
The Occasion of which Insufferable Disaster, after a serious Enquiry, and Discussion of the Point by the Learned of the Faculty, we can Attribute to nothing more than the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE, which Riffling Nature of her Choicest Treasures, and Drying up the Radical Moisture, has so Eunuch• our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent, as Age, and as unfruitful as those Desserts whence that unhappy Berry is said to be brought.
The women’s primary complaint here was the impact they supposed that coffee had one their husbands performance in their more private moments. Coffee faced negative connotations from the start but these women came to believe that the “continual sipping of this pitiful drink enough to bewitch Men of two and twenty, and tie up the Codpiece-point without a Charm.” As a primary complain, they also stated that coffee caused “nothing to be moist but their noses, nothing stiff but their joints and nothing standing but their ears.” The denial of these pleasures was based on the drink, therefore, and not on the behaviors that were engaged in in the coffee houses.
Though women were never truly allowed into the traditional English coffee houses of the 17th and 18th century, women did work in the establishments — in various functions. Imagery of the time shows them serving, but the all-male patrons would have also attracted the interest of prostitutes. Many coffee houses began to cater to this other vice, and thus as the men discussed the great issues of their industry, politics, and philosophy in the civilized setting below they were also able to engage in the more carnal under the same roof. Returning home from the coffee house, they would thus have little interest or ability in performing for their wives, and though perhaps some suspected the illicit behaviors they set their attack on the beverage itself.
The men, of course, responded in kind with their own public letter, refuting quite determinedly the womens’ claim of coffee’s negative effect on physical prowess. In fact, they chose to include right on the title page that their pamphlet was in response “Vindicating their own performances and the virtues of that liquor, from the undeserved aspersions lately cast upon them by their scandalous pamphlet.” It should also be noted that these final two words, referring to the women’s “scandalous pamphlet” were printed on their own line, in full capital lettering, emphasizing the disagreement of the men with their wives on the issue of coffee’s virtues. Later in their pamphlet, they also including an express retaliation to the women’s accusations of their lost charms: maintaining that coffee makes “the erection more vigorous, the ejaculation more full, add[ing] a spiritual ascendancy to the sperm.” While this may have successfully defended their fragile masculinity, it would have also blown some of the cover on the activities which they engaged in while attending the coffee houses.
A year later, a much more threatening attack came from much higher up the social chain — the crown itself. In 1675, Charles II planned to close coffee houses, going to far as to create a proclamation declaring
…the great resort of idle and disaffected persons to them, have produced very evil and dangerous effects; as well for that many Tradesmen and others, do therein mis-spend much of their time, which might and probably would otherwise be employed in and about their Lawful Callings and Affairs; but also, for that in such Houses, and by occasion of the meetings of such persons therein, diverse False, Malicious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majesties Government
While Charles II may have led with his concern about the sin of idleness which coffee shop patrons took part in, the latter part of the accusation suggests the threat coffee houses showed to his very young monarchy.
Charles II was the first king to be restored to the monarchy after the interlude of Lord Protectors serving as the leaders of the Commonwealth. His father, Charles I, had been ousted, and executed by beheading, in January of 1649 when his son was just shy of 20 years old. The uprising against the monarchy, known as the English Civil War, led a young Charles II to fight alongside his father against Parliament until he fled the country in October of 1651. He returned to England in 1660 to be restored to the monarchy.
Having grown up through a Civil War based in the disagreement of the monarchy and the people, Charles II would have had ample reason to fear the threat from the public space which coffee houses provided for the discussion of politics — particularly discussions of the monarchy. However on top of his tumultuous relationship with the crown in his youth, he was also expressly warned against the dangers of the coffee house. The Marquis of Newcastle reputedly warned Charles that “Every man is now a statesman.”
However, his plan to close the coffee houses never went to fruition, as advisors suggested against such a wide sweeping closure. The popularity of the coffee houses, and their symbiotic relationship with many of London’s most important industries, was too valuable to risk. But the monarch’s instinct was likely correct: only 13 years later the English monarchy was once again torn apart by the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which took James II (Charles’ successor) off the throne to replace him with William III of Orange, who was offered the crown by parliament.
The male domination of the coffee house in England never let up, with those facades which had housed coffee roasters turning into private men’s clubs. Today England and tea are nearly synonymous. Tea offered many things which coffee did not, first and foremost that it was a place where feminine domesticity was put on display, making it a family affair as opposed to a place for the husband to retreat. The simplicity of making tea was also a powerful aspect of it’s rapid overtaking of coffee in the English social scene. Tea quickly became associate with the more upper class culture, and also of a type of english nationalism, for the British East India Company had, by the end of the 1700s, established a monopoly on the tea trade. Tea was also easier to prepare in the home, which in the Victorian era became the center of culture and family life as morality became a critical part of social values all over again.
Today the streets of London, and broader England, are dotted with the repetitive facades of Caffe Nero, Starbucks, Pret-a-Manger, and other chains that each serve their own recipe, though largely in the Italian fashion. Filtered coffee has since become passé, and espresso based beverages have taken over the market. But what remains the same is the, now digitized, intellectual discourse to be found a nearly every shop.
Sources for this project can be found here.