The Caffeinated Renaissance
Coffee arrived in England during the 17th century. This plant with a distinctive Arabian
heritage entered England as merely another exotic treat destined for conspicuous consumption; a
commodity reserved for the elite or for making strange elixirs touted as panaceas by
apothecaries. This new commodity quickly caused the appearance of venues designed for its
consumption. Around 1658 the first coffeehouse opened in England. Coffeehouses, common in
Turkey, were transplanted into England as elite clubs. Within ten years, due to new trading
routes and the fall of coffee prices, hundreds of coffeehouses had opened in England. By 1700,
there were over 2000 coffeehouses in London alone.1
The rapid proliferation of these new outlets for the exotic beverage enabled coffee to
evolve from a drink reserved for elites to the daily draught of the working class. In the process,
coffeehouses became places where like minded individuals could meet, enjoy a cup of coffee,
discuss political issues, share news, or hammer out trade contracts. Some coffeehouses even
became centers for scientific discourse and experimentation. Often economic and ideological
alliances started in the coffeehouse would outgrow it, allowing for the birth of new companies
and institutions that impacted British and European culture. By spawning multiple commercial
and social institutions such as shipping and insurance companies, stock markets, and arenas for
scientific discussion and experimentation, the British coffee-house was an economic and cultural
catalyst that redefined European culture in the 17th-18th centuries.
1 Mark Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World [New York:
Basic Books, 1999], 10.
One cannot discuss coffeehouses without discussing their raison d’être, coffee. The plant
itself goes back to its discovery in 15th century Arabia. An Arab goat shepherd named Kaldi had
noted members of his flock eating the seeds of the coffee tree and becoming more alert and
active. Upon trying them himself he found them to be bitter but energizing. 2 The initial source
of the coffee that made its way to England came via Mocha, a Red Sea port renown for being the
epicenter of coffee trade in the Arab world, though seeds were known to have made their way as
far as W. Africa and possibly China through trading, Islamic missionaries, and animals spreading
them as waste material.3
Europeans were slow to embrace coffee as a beverage. The East India trading companies
of the British and the Dutch by the 16th century had sources of the beans and were importing
them but rarely to western European countries. One reason for this is the coffee plant was seen as
a medicinal plant and not for habitual consumption. Certainly apothecaries in England knew of
the medicinal properties of the coffee bean and kept a supply in their stores to treat any number
of ailments as needed.4
Another reason for the lack of early coffee enthusiasm was the cost of importing it. While
it is true that there was a trade in the commodity, the cost was such that once coffee did catch on
in first Italy and then England but it would be reserved for the elite.
Eventually as with many goods such as spices, sugar, and other commodities a
trickledown effect would occur as novelty wore off and the goods became more readily
2 Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer, The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s
Most PopularDrug. [New York: Routledge, 2001], 4.
3 Ibid., 18. Weinberg and Bealer discuss in depth how animals- mainly birds, ate the berries and carried the
indigestible seeds across waters and “dropped” them on fertile ground elsewhere.
4 Markman Ellis, The Coffee-House: A Cultural History [London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 2004], 2.
accessible to lower socioeconomic classes. This happened for coffee in the 17th century. Other
countries, notably Amsterdam and Portugal where coffee plants were smuggled in, successfully
cultivated the crop and were also involved in European trade, this in concert with new trade
routes being found by the Dutch and British East India Companies invariably brought down the
price of coffee.5
This new national desire for a commodity that used to be in the realm of apothecaries and
the elite was the prime factor in the birth of the coffeehouse. Attempting to capitalize on lower
coffee prices, a Greek servant named Pasqua Rosee opened the first coffee shop in London in
1652 after being convinced by his master he should make a living selling the drink at retail.6
Coffeehouses soon flourished throughout England as commodity and its consumption created an
institution that persists to this day.
Early in the coffee consumption era, coffee still remained in the realm of the apothecary.
The coffeehouse and their proprietors did not replace or change the role of the apothecary. To be
certain, these merchants were against the daily use of coffee but with the massive proliferation of
coffeehouses throughout England, they had little choice but to adopt their sales techniques with
the changing times. Since apothecaries already had trade connections to the bean, many of them
went into business with coffeehouse owners to sell the coffee. Often apothecaries were seen in
various coffee houses extolling the virtues of the drink or posting broadsheets in the
establishment reminding patrons of the benefit of a good cup of coffee.7 Ailments ranging from
5 Anne E.C. McCants, “Poor consumers as global consumers: The diffusion of tea and coffee drinking in the
eighteenth century,” Economic History Review, 61, S1 : 175.
6 Brian Cowan, “Publicity and Privacy in the History of the British Coffeehouse” History Compass, Vol. 4, No. 5
[June 2007]: 1184.
7 Paul Greenwood, “A Brief Description of the Excellent Vertues of the Sober and Wholesome drink called Coffee
and it’s incomparable effects in preventing or curing most diseases incident to humane bodies.” ([London],
headaches to digestive issues were treatable with the panacea. Coffee may have been slowly
edging itself into the mainstream but it was still firmly within the sphere of medicine and those
apothecaries who endorsed its continued use.
British coffeehouses were quite similar to their Arab counterparts. Aside from the use of
the hookah, a habit that the British would not adopt, all of the trappings of the Arab coffeehouse
were reproduced on British soil -- political discussion, news dissemation, gambling, and
prostitution all had a hallowed place in both Arab and British coffeehouses.8 There were a
couple of key differences between the coffeehouses of the two cultures. In Arab coffeehouses,
the only women allowed inside were prostitutes and even then they tended to be confined to
certain areas, typically a back room or basement where they would ply their trade in flesh. In
contrast, while British coffeehouses remained the domain of men, many women in Britain found
themselves turned “coffee-maidens” of such establishments.9 The reasons were obvious; the idea
was simply borrowed from British taverns. Bar maids were known to attract male clientele and
the owners of coffeehouses felt the formula would also work in their establishment.
Another facet that differentiated British coffeehouses from their Arab counterparts was
the segregation of clientele. Certainly the coffeehouse was a place where social and economic
status was ignored and every man was an equal, but each one had a particular group of patrons
who frequented them. Records show that there were coffeehouses dedicated to nearly every walk
of life: merchants, sailors, scholars and politicians each had numerous shops where they would
gather to work out trade contracts and discuss science, philosophy, or politics.10 This was not
8 Weinberg and Bealer, The World Of Caffeine, 15-16.
9 Mary Goodwin, . “The Coffee-House of the 17th and 18th Centuries.” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library
Research Report Series, No. 50 [March, 1956]: 3.
10 Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds, 13.
much different than many of the taverns in Britain but, as coffee was considered a drink of the
cultured and refined, and most importantly the brokers were sober -- deals made in coffeehouses
were considered far more trustworthy.11
Coffee consumption also spurred trade in various commodities. As coffee was a bitter
brew and often unpalatable on its own, many consumers added sugar, honey, milk, and even
spices such as chicory and cinnamon to the decoction. This of course caused those commodities
to be briskly traded alongside coffee. Some coffeehouses even offered those goods for sale to
consumers as proprietors already had the trade connections that enabled them to attain such
commodities, often at great profit as many owners, anticipating consumer demand, bought those
goods in bulk.12
A most curious aspect of trade conducted in British coffeehouses was the minting of
coins or tokens. During the coffeehouse boom of the mid 17th century, coffeehouse owners found
themselves at odds with the British monarchy. A typical cup of coffee cost only a penny yet the
monarchy up until about 1670 refused to mint small coins as they had little use for them
economically.13 Savvy owners, not wanting to turn away business especially from the
burgeoning working class that had recently started enjoying the exotic drink, minted their own
change to meet the demand. These tokens were made of various metals such as copper or tin, but
in the cases of smaller shops, leather and other materials were often used. Each coin would be
stamped with the mark of the shop it originated from.14 What is interesting is the tokens were not
11 Ross W. Jamieson, The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine Dependencies in the Early Modern World. Journal
of Social History. Vol. 35, No. 2 [Winter, 2001]: 276.
12 McCants, “Poor consumers as Global consumers”, 173.
13 Aytoun Ellis, The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee-houses. [London: Secker & Warburg, 1956], 56.
14 J.Y.A., “Examples Of London Coffee-house And Tavern Tokens.” The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the
Numismatic Society,Vol. 9 [April,1846–Janurary,1847]: 50-51.
coffeehouse specific. Tokens which represented smaller monetary denominations could be used
at any shop within the town they were produced in. For example, those minted in London could
be used in London, but once outside the city’s borders they were essentially worthless. The only
reason they stamped their trademarks on the coins was for advertising purposes, contrary to the
belief they were issued as coins that could only be used in the coffeehouse they were minted for.
It is not clear how shop owners actually got the money this ad hoc currency represented, though
historian Aytoun Ellis points out that considering tokens rarely got circulated beyond the next
street amount of business many of the shops did, owners rarely worried about reimbursement. 15
It has been argued that British taverns actually started this practice but the majority of coins that
reside in museums today are embellished with the trademarks of coffeehouses not taverns. The
reason the monarchy did not initially ban this practice was due to the fact they were simply too
busy with their own politics to be bothered with attempting to persecute those who were making
the tokens.16 Eventually, the monarchy did prosecute a few business owners and artisans
responsible for circulating these coins but penalties were minimal, often ending up in small fines
and an oath to cease producing them and instead replace then with the newly minted regal
Aside from the typical trade goods merchants haggled over in coffeehouses, an often
overlooked trade also exploded during this period. Sales of earthenware and stoneware also
enjoyed a surge, not just for serving cups and saucers but also an entire host of specialized
products created strictly for the brewing and consumption of coffee. High end establishments
often had their own personalized sets made with the shops trademark painted on. Concurrent
15 Ellis, The Penny Universities, 36.
16 William H. Ukers, All About Coffee [New York: Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Co., 1922]: 62
17 Ibid., 64.
with British desires for exotic goods some coffeehouses even commissioned sets of porcelain or
Delftware cups to grace their establishments, adding certain flair to the already exotic nature of
Certainly coffee was not the only commodity enjoying rapid trade during the 17th
century. In the age of conspicuous consumption many other goods were also traded heavily such
as herb, spices, precious metals, art, and even rare and exotic animals as trade had reached fever
pitch by the mid 17th century. Speculation also came into its own as many underwriters were also
at this point trading stock in various companies, notably the East India companies of the British
and Dutch. Investors attempted to stay ahead of what was already being traded and what
consumers would demand more of. On the other hand, cargo needed to be insured against loss
due to piracy, bad weather, and any other circumstances that devalued a ship’s cargo. This in and
of itself created institutions that enjoyed prosperity due to these circumstances: stock markets
The concept of insurance and stock dates back to Greece around 1750 BCE. Merchants
paid to have goods shipped together in order to offset losses incurred by each other. The
merchants would pay an extra fee on top of normal shipping costs and if one merchant’s goods
were lost, he would be reimbursed with the extra fees collected.19 However, it would not be until
the 17th century that the insurance industry and the connected stock industry would grow into its
18 Ellis, The Penny Universities, 57-58.
19 Raymond Flower and Michael Wynn Jones, Lloyd’s Of London:an Illustrated history. [Essex: Lloyd’s of London
Press, 1974]: 13.
Edward Lloyd opened Lloyd’s Coffee House in 1848. His establishment was frequented
by merchants, ship owners, marine underwriters and investors who flocked to the shop as Lloyd
always managed to keep up with the latest shipping news. His shop produced a broadsheet that
contained news from ports around the British Isles and often other places such as Italy, Greece,
Turkey, or Egypt, aptly titled, Lloyd’s News.20 What made Lloyd’s coffeehouse unique was the
network of port correspondents he built who would send Lloyd’s news from the larger British
ports both domestic and foreign. Larger coffeehouses such as Garraway’s, Jonathan’s, and
John’s had methods of getting news from other ports but sending this information was costly,
and in the case of foreign ports, the letters would take days to reach their destination.
Lloyd’s connections however mitigated many problems with news delivery. He managed
to strike a deal with the British postal service in which he paid a yearly fee of 200£ so his port
correspondents were able to send their letters for free.21 This of course made Lloyd’s the first and
only place one needed to stop to get the latest news on anything shipping related. For the price of
a cup of coffee all interested parties got news on pricing, import and exports, weather, consumer
trends, pirate attacks, and of course the one commodity Britons never got tired of: gossip. All of
this was printed bi-weekly in Lloyd’s News, available to any patron of Lloyd’s for merely
purchasing a cup of coffee. Eventually Lloyd stopped printing his broadsheet due to price
constraints. Printing a bi-weekly paper, even with pertinent shipping information was simply not
profitable. The paper went away but the ubiquitous “Lloyd’s Lists” and “Lloyd’s Register”
replaced them. The vital information was still available but at a cheaper cost since only one copy
needed to be made and posted on the wall at Lloyd’s and available for any who visited the shop.
With this important and timely information available, speculators had the tools they needed to
20 Flower and Jones, Lloyd’s of London,22.
21 Ibid., 48.
invest in ships and their cargo, and are an important first step to the birth of modern maritime
insurance and the modern stock market.
While Lloyd’s is not exactly credited with the actual birth of the first insurance
companies or stock markets, it certainly laid the groundwork for what was to come. At its
inception they were crude industries and even under ideal circumstances nothing less than
gambling. It has been often noted where individuals insured or invested in large cargos only to
have disaster strike with the underwriter unable to cover the losses.22 At the same time
speculators who invested in a certain commodities lost thousands when those goods did not show
up at port. Regardless, even with the high risk involved many underwriters continued to issue
policies in the hopes they would earn a tidy profit once the goods arrived to port safely and the
goods were sold. This would be brisk trade and moderately profitable until 1720 with the
bursting of what economic historians call the “South Sea bubble”.
It is well known that European consumers desperately craved exotic goods, especially
newly found goods in South America. The most lucrative trade routes were in an area known as
the South Sea and trade there was brisk, so much that eventually a company formed that dealt
directly in South Sea trade, the appropriately named South Sea Company. Investors and insurers
at Lloyd’s heavily speculated on the success of trade voyages to South America which drove the
stock price up dramatically. The problem many of these investors overlooked was the fact that
the British Empire was involved in the War of Spanish Succession and trade in Spanish
controlled South America was unlikely. Regardless, many investors engaged in insider trading
and corruption surrounded the entire company as numerous politicians were bribed in order to
pass parliamentary acts to allow the insider trading to continue boosting the stock prices of South
22 Flower and Jones, Lloyd’s of London, 40.
Sea even further. Eventually the “bubble” burst which sent shockwaves throughout the British
economy, causing irreparable damage to Britain’s economy and bankrupting numerous private
underwriters. Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe fame was one of those investors who were
nearly ruined by the bursting of the South Sea bubble.23
The bursting of this economic bubble caused parliament to step in to prevent such a
devastating economic crash from occurring again. In 1720 it enacted the Bubble Act which
prevented the formation of privately owned joint stock companies unless they had the specific
written consent of Parliament. They then chartered the formation of two companies, backed by
the government, that were the only joint companies allowed to underwrite trade voyages—the
Royal Exchange Assurance Corporation and the London Assurance Corporation.24 They would
be primarily responsible for taking care of all of Britain’s underwriting needs and have the
proper financial backing to reimburse investors against any disastrous events that led to a loss of
investment. Some of the more curious events that were covered by these two companies included
death by gin drinking and assurance for female chastity.25 To be sure, private investors could still
underwrite voyages and many still did at great personal risk to themselves, but the time of the
coffee shop insurance agent was practically at an end.
It is crucial to note the impact of Lloyd’s coffee house on the industries that grew out of
it. Without Lloyd’s and its ever pertinent shipping news, insurance and speculation may have
developed elsewhere but not at the pace it did because of the never ending flow of information
from the coffeehouse. Lloyd’s was key in being a catalyst that led to the institution of insurance
companies and formal stock exchanges, which changed the way the British conducted trade, but
23 Flower and Jones, Lloyd’s of London, 40-41.
24 Ibid., 44.
25 Ibid., 44.
other countries as well who learned the lessons from the South Sea Bubble example and started
insurance companies and exchanges of their own. Lloyd’s remained a place for private insurers
to do their business and evolved into one of the largest privately owned insurance companies. It
was able to continue its business under the Bubble Act as it was not jointly owned. Private
investors still made deals but under the banner of the Lloyd’s agency. The company still exists
today as a global insurer for marine, property, aviation and personal insurance underwriting such
things as the voice of Bruce Springsteen, Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s on First” skit,
and the hair of Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu.26
Lloyd’s also was quite instrumental in the forming of the London Stock exchange even
though that particular trade would relocate to Jonathan’s coffeehouse. After the Bubble Act was
passed Lloyd’s was still trying to persist as a privately held insurance company. Having
speculators operating there, whom many felt caused the South Sea bubble to begin with,
garnered unwanted attention from parliament who were looking to shut down Lloyd’s for
possible violations of the act. Though it has been speculated parliament was more concerned
with the fact that Lloyd’s was doing much better business than the two government operated
insurance companies and shutting them down would bring many of those contracts under
government control.27 Regardless, even with the soon to be London Stock Exchange located at
Jonathan’s coffeehouse, the stock market traces its lowly beginnings back to Lloyd’s
coffeehouse. There can be no doubt of the impact of Lloyd’s in helping to create insurance
companies and stock markets or the effect they both had on the wider world of commerce.
26 Lloyd’s of London. “Going Out On a Limb- Body parts and Others.” Lloyd’s of London,
[accessed November 11, 2014].
27 Flower and Jones, Lloyd’s of London, 45-46.
Economy was certainly not the only aspect of British life touched by coffeehouses in the
17th and 18th century. Once coffeehouses began to flourish in Britain they became central to the
cultural and social life of Britons. Aside from being a place to enjoy the exotic beverage and feel
“worldly”, the coffeehouse became a center for the dissemation of news from other parts of
Europe other than trade news that was the mainstay of Lloyd’s. The political news and gossip
that typically accompanied the letters sent back by port reporters of Lloyd’s often made its way
into coffeehouses frequented by those not in the business of shipping. These coffeehouses were
places where commoners could sit and discuss events going on overseas or chastise politicians
without fear being labeled an enemy of the state.
The rise of satire in coffeehouses exemplifies the freedom of speech one had in the
coffeehouse setting and is direct evidence to what was considered newsworthy to people of this
period. The mere fact that satire was written in relation to current events certainly exhibits what
was important to many Britons in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Shortly after coffeehouses opened in Britain, some establishments came to be known for
the plays or satires performed there. These would often be short skits performed for a small
audience (those who were in attendance at a particular coffeehouse) that criticized current events.
Often these satires were politically charged, poking fun at parliament members, royalty, foreign
dignitaries and even coffee consumers themselves, but they typically always revolved around the
most pertinent news of the day.
One example from 1720 entitled “Exchange Alley” parodies the nature of traders,
specifically those at Jonathan’s coffeehouse that were involved in the ill-fated South Sea bubble.
In this satire Miranda is betrothed to a man named Africanus, a stock trader who becomes a
gentleman due to his success in South Sea speculation. It portrays Africanus as an allegory for all
stock brokers involved during the period leading up to the collapse of the South Sea bubble. In
the play Africanus is often seen wearing animal skins, usually wild boar, and walking into the
coffeehouse on all fours.28 Historian Markman Ellis explains that “The appearance of these
gentlemen as beasts brutally asserts the essentially conservative argument against social
mobility.” 29 Ellis claims the play was never performed in front of an audience; however other
historians make a counter claim that as satires were filled with anti-government rhetoric, those
involved with writing or performing them typically did not want to gain the attention of
government officials who already considered many coffeehouses to be hotbeds of revolutionary
thought.30 It was typical that satires like this were performed on an impromptu basis or by one of
many travelling troupes that performed in coffeehouses around London.31 This becomes even
more complicated since satires were also often printed anonymously in broadsheet form for those
who were not in attendance of these impromptu performances.
The coffeehouse satire was known for crossing boundaries when it came to criticism of
just about anything. The more outlandish the satire was, the more popular it tended to be.
Another example that exemplifies this style is “The Coffee Man on Tryall” which places a
personified version of coffee, known as Don Ballingo Blackburnt “the Coffee Man”, into a mock
trial charged with corruption of the city’s morals. He of course is found guilty and his
punishment consisted of execution by “being stained black by immersion in coffee, having his
sexual organ cut off, being dragged through the street, being beaten with bull’s penises, and
28 Anonymous, Exchange-Alley:or the stock-jobber turn’d gentleman ([London], 1720), 1-40.
29 Markman Ellis, Satire,vol. 2 of Eighteenth Century Coffee-House Culture. [London: Pickering & Chatto, 2006]:
30 Steven Topik, Coffee as a Social Drug.” Cultural Critique,No. 71 [Winter, 2009]: 93-94.
31 Ellis Satire, vol. 2 of Eighteenth Century Coffee-House Culture,31.
finally stoned to death with sheep’s testicles.32 Markman cites this was not just a commentary on
the culture of coffee but also a criticism on the nature of the British justice system.33
Regardless, the satires written in the 17th century are a window in which coffeehouse
culture was viewed through. We can see from the types and styles of satires that were written and
possibly performed that Britons had very strong opinions about current events and were able to
express those views easier in the coffeehouse environment. By the 18th century satires would
leave the domain of the coffeehouse and move into playhouses as the censorship that was
indicative of the British government had all but gone away in the wake of the 1688 revolution
and the need to perform them clandestinely in coffeehouses diminished.34 Still, the coffeehouse
satire created a legacy that modern comedy troupes such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus or the
“not ready for prime-time players” of SNL can trace the roots of their craft to.
Oddly enough, one aspect of British culture that came of age in the coffeehouse was that
of science. This is a curious aspect considering universities in Britain were not a novelty by any
means, but scientists who studied in these universities were quite limited in the scientific
research they could perform as typical British schools were focused upon descriptions of
scientific practices, not the actual experimentation. Indeed the “lab” as we know it today was
simply unheard of in the mid-16th century, there were certainly no formal ones at universities and
what few depictions of them exist in woodcuts from this period show them more as cluttered
rooms than proper scientific facilities.35
32 F. Jones Tryall of the Coffee-Man ([London,1662]), 1-7.
33 Ellis, Satire, vol. 2 of Eighteenth Century Coffee-House Culture, 36.
34 Ibid., 32.
35 Henning Smidgen, “In The Laboratory: European History Online” Institute of European History, http://www.ieg-
ego.eu/schmidgenh-2011-en [accessed November 9,2014].
Scientists were drawn to coffeehouses for various reasons aside from lack of facilities at
universities. Alchemists are considered to be the progenitors of this trend mostly due to the
secrecy provided by coffeehouses. During the 17th century alchemy was still akin to occult and
witchcraft and those who dabbled in it had to bear this stigma. It is no surprise that in
coffeehouses, where all manners of salacious activity were already occurring such as gambling
or prostitution, alchemists felt secure that their experiments went unnoticed for the most part.
Another reason for the rise of alchemy labs in coffeehouse basements was the simple fact that the
smell of roasting and brewing coffee offset the often strange smells that typically emanated from
an alchemists lab. This of course would sometimes work in favor of the proprietor when
passersby, smelling some strange reaction from the makeshift lab, thought the coffeehouse had
purchased a new type of coffee bean. There are no clear accounts how many of these early labs
resided in coffeehouses but broadsheets printed that speak out against coffeehouses often
mention strange smells coming from the coffeehouses that was not the smell of coffee.36
Aside from the alchemists who were renting basement space from coffeehouse owners,
many coffee houses, especially those near Oxford and Cambridge, became gathering places for
the intellectually elite. Many gathered in coffeehouses to discuss theory or explain new concepts
they had come across. In a sense the coffeehouse was a “clearinghouse” for scientific discourse
where scholars could get immediate feedback on their theories, or expose a new audience to the
latest scientific discoveries. These coffeehouses eventually became the birthplace of scientific
newsletters that circulated amongst other scientists in London and beyond, and are considered
the precursors to most modern science and medical journals.37
36 Anonymous, The Women’s petition against Coffee.([London], 1674), 5.
37 W.H.G. Armytage “Coffee-Houses and Science.” The British Medical Journal,Vol. 2, No. 5193 [Jul. 16, 1960]:
The prominence of coffeehouses as laboratories is most readily seen in inventories made
of the coffeehouses where goods related to scientific study were often found. One such inventory
aside from listing the normal accoutrements of the coffeehouse, also listed such things as a
female chicken embryo, silver ore, a Chinese almanac, and several tongues of serpents. This does
not just show that coffeehouses were used as laboratories by alchemists, but also elucidates that
many different types of science were studied there.38
Of course it goes without saying that with good and proper scientific discourse also came
an equal amount of dishonest or bad science. Alchemists were not the only scientists who chose
to use space in the coffeehouse to work on theories or spread information to like minds. By the
beginning of the 18th century “quacks” found ways to advertise in coffeehouses and some even
made deals with owners to sell their nostrums to patrons. Some even set up shop inside the
coffeehouse to sell their wares to unsuspecting customers.39
One outstanding example is that of John Pechy, an Oxford graduate and licentiate of the
College of Physicians. He, like many other licentiates, found that being a quack was actually
more profitable than being a legitimate doctor. Pechy set up a dispensary in the Golden Angel
and Crown coffeehouse and issued a handbill to the public describing the various remedies he
sold there and even added to his handbill that upon making proper arrangements, he could bring
the panaceas to a purchaser anywhere in London.40 Pechy was often in trouble with the College
of Physicians because of these advertisements but after being fined by the college, he simply
refused to pay the 40 shilling fine imposed upon him, daring the college to come after him. They
never did and Pechy continued to sell his powers and elixirs up until his death in 1718.
38 James Salter, A Catalougue ofRarities ([London], 1729), 1-16.
39 Ellis, The Penny Universities, 129.
40 Ibid., 131-132.
The nature of scientific discourse in coffeehouses also led to an interest in science by the
working class. Previously in order to receive any formal scientific training, one had to actually
be a student at a university which none but members of the elite class could afford. The
coffeehouse changed all that as all curious parties had to do if they wanted to learn about science
is show up at one of the many coffeehouses where it was discussed and buy a cup of coffee. This
brought a rise to what many historians call “Penny Universities”, a coffeehouse phenomenon
where anyone regardless of social class could get a “university education” by simply purchasing
a cup of coffee.41 This would be short lived as deans at both Oxford and Cambridge felt the
realm of academia slipping away from their grasp and by the end of the 17th century opened their
own coffeehouses on the campuses of the universities in an attempt to keep the scholars away
from the laymen, but the damage had been done. Scholars in coffeehouses landed credence to the
quacks that practiced there, while science and education lost a lot of the mysticism that
surrounded them as institutions for the educated elite. This also was a catalyst that slowly
changed methods of doing science from theoretical, into the practical and experimental as
universities afforded space to scientists for such endeavors in further attempts to keep their
students from turning to coffeehouses to test their theories. It has even been rumored that Isaac
Newton once dissected a dolphin on a table at a coffeehouse for observers!42
While science underwent a crucial change due to the coffeehouses, perhaps one of the
most fundamental changes to British society sparked in coffeehouses would be of a political
nature. Just as some establishments specialized in creating atmospheres conducive to trade or
41 Both Aytoun Ellis and Markman Ellis (no relation) mention this phenomenon.Aytoun’s bookbears the title and
Ellis mentions it in the intro to for the fourth volume of Eighteenth Century Coffee House Culture and The
Coffee House: A Cultural History though neither explains where the phrase originated. It is generally
assumed this was informal slang invented by coffeehouse patrons during the 18th century to assist patrons
in choosing from specialized coffeehouses.
42 Ellis, The Penny Universities, 80.
science, one characteristic all coffeehouses had in common was discussion of current events,
most of which was in the form of politics. The coffeehouse with its mixed clientele provided the
perfect stage for debate between Britons belonging to different social classes thus bringing
current issues directly into the public sphere. In addition to lively and often heated debates that
occurred in coffeehouses throughout England, many of the more politically charged elements
went as far as printing tracts denouncing the government and the crown.
One striking example that exemplifies this is the tract “A dialogue of Tom and Dick, over
a dish of coffee, concerning matters of religion and government” penned in 1680 by an unknown
author. This tract deals with the “Popish Plot”, a false conspiracy concocted by Titus Oates that
alleged there was a Catholic plot to assassinate Charles II.43 The plot was eventually found to be
a hoax but it caused a great wave of anti-Catholic hysteria to sweep over England. In the tract
Tom, a news reporter and Dick, a commoner discuss how those who deny the existence of the
plot are part of a wider Catholic conspiracy. The subtext of this tract is a direct criticism on the
handling of the affair by Charles II and his advisors which led to the execution of 22 innocent
Tracts and other pamphlets or broadsheets like this were quite common and because of
this, coffeehouses were often seen as dens of sedition and revolutionary thought as coffeehouse
politicians focused exclusively on taking every opportunity they could to debate the corruptness
of parliament and the crown. In numerous attempts to end the spread of anti-court news, Charles
II issued proclamations against coffeehouses in 1672, 1675 and again in 1676. These
43 Steve Pincus, “Coffee Politicians Does Create: Coffeehouses and Restoration Political Culture.” The Journal of
Modern History, Vol. 67, No. 4 (Dec., 1995): 817.
44 Anonymous, A dialogue ofTom and Dick, over a dish of coffee, concerning matters of religion and government
([London], 1680), 1-35.
proclamations were attempts to suppress anti-court speech and documents circulating in
throughout London’s coffeehouses. The proclamation itself is directed at:
Men [who] have assumed a liberty, not onely in coffee-houses, but in other Places
and Meetings both publick and private to censure and defame the proceedings of State by
speaking evil of things they understand not, and endeavoring to create and nourish an
universal Jealousie and Dissatisfaction in the minds of all his Majesties good subjects.45
This of course implied the commoners who were known to frequent coffeehouses and speak out
against the government in such establishments where their low position in England’s socio-
economic strata was always accompanied by a high level of government dissatisfaction.
Later proclamations echoed the same sentiment but to no avail. If anything the
proclamations only stirred up detractors and each subsequent one would be met with both satire
and further anti-government rhetoric that have been linked to 1688’s Glorious Revolution. 46
While no concrete records place the origins of the revolution in coffeehouses, there can
be no doubt that much of the rhetoric circulating that precipitated this event. After the death of
Charles II in 1685, his brother James II ascended to the throne and citizens felt he was pro-
French and pro-Catholic with a desire to become absolute monarch. With the birth of his son
James in 1688 elites worried that this was a sign that heralded a new Catholic dynasty in England
as the birth of a male heir precluded that inheritance of the throne by Mary II, the Protestant heir
presumptive. William the Orange, Mary’s husband eventually invaded England and after a few
45 Charles II, A Proclamation to Restrain the Spreading of False News and Licentious Talking of Matters of State
and Government. [(London), 1672)] , 2.
46 Steve Pincus, 1688 The First Modern Revolution [London,Yale University Press:2009]:308-310
minor skirmishes in which his forces won, James II fled England and with him any chance of the
Catholic Church being restored in England.47
Anti-Catholic rhetoric was certainly nothing new to in coffeehouses and sources indicate
that it reached its height in the years leading up to 1688. James II, much like his predecessor was
concerned with the anti-court views of the coffeehouses and during his reign he also issued
proclamations denouncing such practices in British coffeehouses.48 He demanded that
coffeehouses be denied licenses unless they paid a security fee that guaranteed owners would
prohibit any unlicensed books or texts in their establishment. This of course was met with the
exact same reaction the proclamations of Charles II received and therefore, were not adhered to
and as a matter of fact only compelled producers of such texts to generate more in defiance of the
monarchy. So while 1688’s Glorious revolution cannot be reliably traced to coffeehouses, the
political nature of them and texts created for dissemation inside the houses certainly fanned the
flames of political unrest directed towards the monarchy.
By the time William and Mary ascended to the newly unified throne of England and
Scotland they had accepted that coffeehouses were simply a political reality. Certainly they were
aware of anti-government rhetoric that was a mainstay of the British coffeehouse and were
concerned with the possibility of such rhetoric to incite riots, but neither they nor any other
successive rulers made any attempts at suppression. Licenses were still issued per previous
proclamations but they were rarely enforced as those charged with enforcing such laws were
lenient in regards to the practicality of enforcing them. Cowan theorizes the reason for this is
many enforcers and clerks were being paid by printers to provide information from behind closed
47 Pincus, 1688,6.
48 Brian Cowan, “The Rise of the Coffeehouse Reconsidered.” The Historical Journal Vol. 47, no. 1 (2004): 21.
doors and none of them cared to be implicated of sedition through the enforcement of the
proclamations. 49 Political discourse remained a key feature of early modern British coffeehouses
for better or worse from its early inception until the decline of the coffeehouse towards the end
of the 18th century.
Historians offer vastly different opinions as to why the coffeehouse fell finally out of
favor in Britain. However, most historians agree that failed coffeehouse endeavors, the rise of
exclusive clubs, and the sup plantation of tea proved problematic in the continued survival of
Coffeehouses in the 17th and 18th centuries at the peak felt their reach was practically
unlimited. With broadsheets, pamphlets, and political tracts being printed at an unprecedented
level many coffeehouse owners felt they were poised to take over newspapers and create a
monopoly on news. This was met with high levels of ridicule and derision eroded the social
status of the coffeehouse. Soon places that were known for news lost creditability with their
customers because of this. Soon customers were turning to papers like the London Gazette for
sanitized news without a running editorial or satire. The day of the coffeehouse being the prime
source for reliable news was certainly at an end as attempts to form a monopoly on news were
met with ultimate failure.
Another feature of the coffeehouse that endeared it to Britons also began to disappear.
Many of the “house rules” that made coffeehouses accessible to all classes suddenly fell to the
wayside. Bramah cites that “Snobbery reared its head, particularly amongst the intelligentsia,
who felt that their special genius entitled them to protection from the common herd. Strangers
49 Cowan, The Rise of the Coffeehouse Reconsidered,26.
50 Ellis, The Coffee House: A Cultural History, 35-36.
were no longer welcome.”51 Coffeehouse owners in attempts to keep their more prosperous
clientele started charging more than a penny for a cup. This of course precluded the working
class patrons from frequenting coffeehouses, the former class transcending nature of the
coffeehouse was on the wane and eventually disappeared moving coffeehouses and by proxy
coffee back again into the realm of the elite.
Finally, and arguably most importantly, tea rose to prominence in Britain. By the late 18th
century coffeehouses spread throughout Europe and high demand combined with low supply
dramatically increased the price of the beans. The British East India Company turned to tea as
the new beverage of elites. Hoping to create its own monopoly on tea it did everything it could to
encourage the purchase of the beverage from clever marketing to offering importers discounts of
trade tariffs. Soon tea would replace coffee as the drink of the “refined gentleman” and while
British coffeehouses still persisted, the number of shops still specializing on serving coffee
Even with coffee becoming little more than a passing trend in early modern England the
legend of the drink and the establishments it was served in endures, as do the institutions that had
their lowly start in the dark smoky coffeehouses of England. Lloyd’s is now a multi-billion
dollar insurance giant and of course the speculation that began at Lloyd’s and Jonathan’s is now
formally enjoyed as the London Stock exchange. It is impossible to find a British university that
does not have a lab affiliated with it and scientific discourse enjoys an honored spot among
academians. The political views that once were relegated to independently printed tracts and
broadsheets now have a separate section in prominent British newspapers. The coffeehouse
51 Edward Bramah. Tea and Coffee: A Modern View of Three Hundred Years of Tradition. [Essex: Hutchinson &
52 Cowan, Rise of the Coffeehouse Reconsidered, 29.
served to change trade, journalism, science, and education during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Most importantly for two centuries the British coffeehouse by removing barriers between social
classes, allowed these changes to touch every nearly every citizen of England regardless of social
class, truly becoming a catalyst that redefined multiple facets of early modern English culture.