OPINION19 November 2009

Coffee house culture

Last night on Radio 4, Adam Hart-Davis’ The Eureka Years looked at 1650, when an exciting new drink called ‘coffee’ was transforming Britain’s intellectual culture.

Last night on BBC Radio 4, Adam Hart-Davis’ The Eureka Years looked at 1650, when an exciting new drink called ‘coffee’ was transforming London’s intellectual culture. Coffee houses became the respectable alternative to taverns, serving a drink that sharpened rather than dulled the senses and fuelled conversation about arts, science, politics and business. Lloyds’ insurance market, the Stock Exchange and Newton’s theory of gravitation all have their origins in the coffee house.

Tom Standage, business editor of The Economist by day and an expert in the history of coffee by night, draws parallels between coffee house culture and the internet: “Coffee houses tended to have subject-specific alignments, so if you were the clergyman you would go to this one, and if you were an actor you went to that one and if you were a sailor you went to that one, and so forth. They were a bit like websites, and you’d sort of go to the ones that matched your interests…

“The scientists all went to a bunch of coffee houses where they would discuss scientific matters, so the Royal Society would meet and then they’d retire to a coffee house. There were scientific lectures held in coffee houses – they were sometimes called penny universities because you could go in, buy your coffee for a penny and then listen to interesting people talk about interesting things and join in and pick up so much information in these places…

“Coffeehouses had publications on the table, the newspapers, pamphlets, that sort of thing, so you could absorb information on lots of different subjects very easily. You walk in, you buy your coffee, you go over and see what people are talking about, read the news and so on. So it’s very much like browsing the web today.”

The power of coffee house conversation was understood by Charles II, who tried to ban them in the 1670s, fearing that they were a hotbed for radical political thought. But by that point they were just too ingrained in the culture, and he had to live with them. In Paris, coffee houses were teeming with spies working for the crown, and archives describe the anti-royalist buzz they picked up. Companies concerned about what people might be saying about them do similar things via social media monitoring today (although generally with a more constructive approach when things don’t go their way).

These days, coffee shops don’t really play the role of a venue for networking. We’re not short of places to buy a latte, and different coffee shops attract different crowds, but I don’t know of any in London that cater particularly to people who want to talk about naval history or microbiology or Japanese animation.

Nor do they typically host lectures, and in most cases, striking up a conversation with a complete stranger about science or politics or some other weighty subject would be considered odd at best, and rude at worst. Unless, of course, you’re doing it on the internet, via your laptop, using the free wi-fi.

350 years ago, niche audiences and communities thrived with nothing more high-tech than some caffeine, a pamphlet and a roaring fire. It’s taken a while for digital technology to bring us to the same point.

NB. because of the vagaries of the BBC iPlayer the audio link above only works if you’re in the UK, and the actual programme begins about 2 minutes into the recording


12 years ago

Interesting. I too am a coffee house/shop addict. Can anyone recommend any sources where it is possible to read up more about the history of the coffee shop?

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12 years ago

Hell Tom, Consider reading The Coffee House: A Cultural History by Markman Ellis. It's a good read. http://caffeinatedconverstions.com

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