Coffee Anyone?

Most of us simply can’t get going without our morning (and afternoon) dose of caffeine to power us through the day. One might think this is a modern trend brought about by the influx of coffee houses during the 80s and 90s, but our Victorian forefathers were way ahead of us. And – they weren’t the first!

The earliest recorded coffeehouse was located in Mecca in the early 1500s, possibly even the late 1400s. On the European continent, the first coffee house open for business was the Cafe Le Procope in Paris. This elegant business opened their doors in 1686. The US was slow to follow, and did not open the Caffé Reggio in New York until 1927.

By the late 17th and 18th centuries, English coffeehouses were popular places for people from all walks of life to meet, gossip, enjoy viewing the latest fashions, and engage in polite conversation about politics and civil matters. Polite conversation led to reasoned and sober debate, not only on politics, but also on science, literature, poetry, commerce and religion. For this reason, these gathering places were often called “penny universities.” Patrons engaged in conversation while enjoying the latest trend – a drink newly arrived from Turkey. – coffee. Their coffee, however, was not very palatable, as it was often cut with chicory, horse beans or fig refuse. However, the caffeine in it provided quite a buzz, which made it very addictive!

The coffeehouses also became popular places to do business, so each coffeehouse had a usual clientele defined by occupation, interest, trade, political persuasion or interest Of course, there were some that simply catered to gentlemen of fashion and leisure. Several great British institutions can trace their roots back to these coffeehouses, including the London Stock Exchange, Southeby’s, Lloyd’s of London and Christie’s. Unlike public houses (pubs), no alcohol was served, and women were strictly forbidden.

What were women to do? Their dilemma of where to meet for a little afternoon gossip gave rise to the institution of tea houses. Accordingly, the new fashion and taste for tea arose, especially since these were venues available to both men and women. Much more lively conversations! Also, with the rise of exclusive gentlemen’s clubs, the coffee houses fell out of favor. They did see a revival though during the Temperance Movement, and now in the modern era, they are going strong.

The most popular and well established chain of coffeehouses in the world is now Starbuck’s. It was founded in 1971 in Seattle, and has grown to approximately 33,833 stores in 80 countries. Starbucks serves hot and cold drinks, whole-bean coffee, micro-ground instant coffee, espresso, caffe latte, full and loose-leaf teas, juices, Frappuccino beverages, pastries, and snacks. Some even serve liquor! Depending on the country, most locations provide free Wi-Fi internet access, making them a very popular place to study and socialize for students. In August 2012, the largest Starbucks in the US opened at the University of Alabama’s Ferguson Centre.

As the days grow shorter and temperatures cool off, we may change our order from iced lattes and cold teas to hot seasonal beverages, but few of us will give up our coffee breaks. Sure, we can make the same drinks at home, much cheaper too, but nothing beats the atmosphere, the convenience and the selections of our local coffeehouse.

Sandee is the historian for the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected]