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September 28, 2006

1000 Words -- Coffee-house Culture

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm not the first observer of the web and of blogdom to be reminded of the 17th and 18th century coffee-house. "It's open! And everyone is having a say!" -- the parallels between now and then are striking. Even so, I haven't yet run across a brief blog-intro to coffee-house culture. What was this coffee-house phenomenon about anyway?

Introduced to Europe in the 1600s, coffee took the continent by storm, and coffee-houses sprang up in many major cities. The caffeine high contributed to the fervor, of course, but the historical moment (which can be seen as a transitional era between the Renaissance and the modern world) was important too. The aristocracy was beginning to lose its grip; the middle-class was a-borning and wanted to stretch its wings. Wikipedia, for instance, calls the Paris coffee-houses "a major locus of the French Enlightenment."

Nowhere did coffee-mania hit as hard as London, where the city's first coffee-house was opened in 1652. Within a couple of decades, coffee-houses had become the centers of London social life -- and that's "social" as in business, politics, art, and crime.

By the mid-1700s, there were 550 coffee houses in the city. Wives complained that hubbies were spending too much time at the coffee-houses. (Women weren't allowed in them.) Coffee-house-going became so popular that for a time Islamic styles of dress and fashion became a fad. Established authority figures had bouts of paranoia about the coffee-houses. Surely conspiracies and other seditious doin's were being hatched there!

What in fact was taking place in most of them was vigorous conversation. Partly thanks to the caffeine, it was an extraverted, dynamic time. People were out and about, learning how to be sociable. They were comparing notes and trying out ideas; there were deals to be made.

The birth of modern English-language publishing was intimately bound up with coffee-house culture. Pamphlets, newsletters, and early periodicals (such as The Guardian and The Spectator) were distributed largely to and through the coffee-houses, and the writers and editors treated the goings-on at coffee-houses as part of their subject matter. Did you realize that the modern short story, British division, has its roots in the unsigned, semi-disguised nonfiction accounts run in these publications? That's right: "The short story," today often thought of as a super-specialized, la-de-dah form, is a direct descendent of the 17th and 18th century equivalent of Page Six. (Good lord: Anal-sex guru Tristan Taormina is Thomas Pynchon's niece!)

Different coffee-houses attracted different kinds of crowds. The scientists of the Royal Society met at The Graecian. Other coffee-houses were patronized mainly by politicians; there were Whig coffee-houses and Tory coffee-houses. Still other coffee-houses attracted businessmen -- Lloyd's of London had its birth at Lloyd's Coffee-house. Says one source:

"It was in such coffee-houses as Lloyd's, Garraway's, and Jonathan's that Britain's modern business institutions spent their infancy and that the foundation was laid which would lead them towards ascendancy in world commerce in the nineteenth century."

Arty types had their own hangouts. Early on, Will's Coffee-house in Covent Garden was the literary coffee-house, with John Dryden its presiding spirit. Later, Button's hosted Addison, Steele, and Swift. Later yet, the Bedford was a second home to the likes of Henry Fielding, David Garrick, and William Hogarth.

Coffee-house society was notably egalitarian; everyone was allowed to pitch in. Coffee-houses were anything but aristocratic. They were full of smoke, chocolate, buzz, raillery, and jokes. Pamphlets circulated, debate roared, and satires were composed.

(An aside: Today's usual, English-major, NYTBR/NYRB view of publishing is that it's a dirty, unfortunate business that's occasionally redeemed by literature. Another view is that mainstream publishing is an exclusive club that you can only dream of joining. The main reason both of these views tick me off is that they're untrue to the nature of modern reading and writing. Modern publishing and literature were never separate creatures, and they were chaotic, entrepreneurial, and commercial enterprises right from the outset.)

For a little over a hundred years, from the mid-1600s to the late 1700s, coffee-houses were the center of British culture. In time, though, the coffee-house business slowed down. Tea became popular; some people decided they wanted quieter, more genteel experiences with their caffeine -- and thus sprouted the institution of the tea house. Other coffee-houses decided that the time had come to keep out the riffraff by creating membership lists -- hence the modern British club.

Takeaway history lesson: The coffee-house was the springboard for modern British culture. The vigor of British literature and art, the dynamism of its politics, the explosion of its industry and finance -- all of them took their initial shape and impetus in the coffee-houses. Parallel to the present day: Traditional culture and authority are losing their grip, and everyday people are starting to have things their own way. The web -- a great, big, rowdy, unruly heap of buzzing conversation -- is the new coffee-house, and it gives every indication of becoming the new center of culture too.

Some resources: here, here, here, and especially here and here. An author named Bryant Lillywhite once wrote an 858 page history of the London coffee-houses. Here's a blog that calls itself Will's Coffee-house.

Long ago, I wrote a "1000 Words" about "Carmilla," which is sometimes said to be the first vampire novel.



UPDATE: Small additional thought. The mainstream and traditional media and culture people who denounce the web (and sometimes even see it as illegitimate)? ... Well, what to make of the fact that they're turning up their noses at something (the web) that's remarkably similar to the circumstances and conditions (coffee-house culture) that gave rise to their own version of culture?

posted by Michael at September 28, 2006


Yet another brilliant article. Do you do cocaine? Just kidding.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on September 28, 2006 8:10 PM

Ya see what happens when women get into the act? The brawling, boisterous coffee house descends into the demure, diffident tea house. Ya see? Ya see?

Posted by: ricpic on September 29, 2006 6:45 AM

Coffee, tea, tobacco, chocolate, cheap sugar and cheap distilled liquors all became widely available in a relatively short historical span. Whether we're talking about The Spectator or Gin Lane, we're talking a buzz! Surely the impact dwarfed any 'drug problem' we've had to deal with lately.

Pynchon offers a glimpse of an American drug den c. 1765 in Mason & Dixon:

"Smoke from their bright pale pipes hangs like indoor fog, through which, a-glimmering, the heavy crockery and silverware claps and rings. Servant lads in constant motion carry up from the cellar coffee sacks upon their shoulders, or crank the handles of gigantic coffee grinders, as the Assembly clamors for cup after cup of the invigorating Liquid. By the end of each day, finely divided coffee-dust will have found its way by the poundful up the nostrils and into the brains of these by then alert youths, lending a feverish edge to all they speak and do.
Conversing about politics, under such a stimulus, would have prov'd animated enough, without reckoning in as well the effects of drink,
tobacco,— whose smoke one inhales here willy-nilly with every breath,— and sugar, to be found at every hand in lucent brown cones great and little, Ic'd Cupcakes by the platter-ful, all manner of punches and flips, pies of the locality, crullers, muffins, and custards..."

Posted by: Monte Davis on September 29, 2006 9:50 AM

Were women allowed to "pitch in" in those early English coffee houses? (Just wondering how truly egalitarian they were).

Posted by: annette on September 29, 2006 10:08 AM

Charlton -- Glad you enjoyed! It's amazing what some crystal meth will do. Now I'm off to the dentist for some extensive teeth work ...

Ricpic -- Chicks, eh? Always trying to civilize things. Sheesh.

Monte -- Intoxicants and stimulants, the secret history of culture. I wonder what Pynchon was on ... I always read "Gravity's Rainbow" as an LSD novel. What's your guess?

Annette -- According to my very shallow researches, women weren't allowed in as patrons at all. (OK, so they were still working out the kinks in that "egalitarian" thing.) Some of the service people were women, though.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 29, 2006 10:49 AM

Lloyd's coffee house had a long reaching effect on commerce. The marine insurance industry that grew out of that coffee house attracted more investment capital into shipping and commerce by spreading the risk of catastrophe. Potential investors observed Lloyds underwriters following through on promises made in the insurance contracts, and gradually became less relunctant to invest in long voyages.

Lloyd's coffee house thus played a small role in developing our willingness to trust in insurance contracts, a willingness that made corporate enterprise and long term planning and investment more likely to take place.

The conviviality of the business oriented coffee houses might have played a role in developing the "high trust" culture of the Anglos-sphere, a culture in which we are more willing to place our trust in those outside our family and clan.

High levels of trust lead to tremendous gains in productivity and wealth creation.

Posted by: Bill on September 29, 2006 11:45 AM

Chocolate, pipe smoke, ego, messiness, women wonder men were at their best!

Posted by: annette on September 29, 2006 12:24 PM

My guess (knowing as little about Pynchon as everyone else) is that he tried everything going at some point -- but while writing, wasn't "on" anything intoxicating but the marvelous reverse paranoia of "I can project an immanent order behind and beyond all this Stuff That Happens." Or at least I hope so: It's daunting enough to imagine him holding such intricate structures in mind while more or less straight...

There's also quite a flavor of this in parts of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, which almost certainly took some inspiration from Pynchon.

Posted by: Monte Davis on September 29, 2006 4:13 PM

The coffee-house was the springboard for modern British culture
Sounds like a fascinating idea, but I think you're confusing symptom with a cause.

If the coffeehouses were the source of the societal progress in Europe as you describe it, i.e. cafe=>discussion club=>incubator of ideas=> engine of commerce etc, the same process will inevitably happen in other parts of the world, right?
Why, then, coffeehouse/teahouse culture exist in Islamic lands for more than a 1000 years (indeed it came to Europe from there), and somehow, no authentic Lloyds or Spectators appear there.
I remember reading a couple of years ago Pamuk's Snow and noticing prominent role that coffeehouses play in the general atmosphere of gloom and doom in the book...

Posted by: Tat on September 29, 2006 10:01 PM

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