Substantive or Superficial: The Contrasting Viewpoints on Late 17th and Early 18th Century London Coffeehouse Conversation

In the late 17th century in London, though alehouses had long dominated social life among men in Britain, there became a tremendous shift in British culture. A huge amount of the population began to drink a different sort of substance, one that had far different effects on the mind. Unlike the inebriating quality that liquor has on its consumer, coffee stimulates the mind, and Coffee-houses experienced extreme growth in prominence. Their rise in popularity had profound effects on British society with Coffee-houses becoming the place where men would sit for hours on end, discussing business, politics, and other news (Jameison, 282).

The first thorough description of a man’s experiences at a Coffee-house came in the Diary of a London man named Samuel Pepys (The Coffee House 56). A man of “humble parentage”, Pepys eventually became one of the richest and most important men of his time (britannica). In the ten years he kept his diary, he documented ninety-nine visits to the Coffee-house, though the purpose of his visits was not simply to enjoy the coffee, but for conversation and companionship (The Coffee House). However, despite Pepys private positive account and many positive visual depictions of Coffee-houses in the late 17th and early 18th century, a negative attitude against these establishments can be seen in pamphlets and other documents from the same time period.

I will focus my project on public depictions of Coffee-house’s from the late 17th and early 18th century in London. Specifically, I will look at how visual sources and textual sources contrast in their portrayal of Coffee-house’s during this time. Although the saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words, when I started researching Coffee-houses during this era, I knew I wanted to find a combination of visual and textual primary sources. I felt that I could learn a lot more about 17th and 18th century Coffee-house’s through reading journals and pamphlets from the time. However, when I started to locate textual sources, it became apparent that the large majority of them had a negative perspective on Coffee-houses. This stuck out to me for a couple of reasons. First, the idea of Coffee-houses replacing alehouses as the prominent place of social interaction for men just seemed like a beneficial development for British society, and I was confused why citizens wouldn’t think so. Secondly, the majority of visual representations of Coffee-house’s from the time made them appear to be pleasant places. These trends peaked my interest and drove me to pursue the topic further.

I will begin my exhibit by analyzing three visual sources, one an advertisement from Manwaring Coffee-house estimated to be dated to 1700, another a drawing acquired by The British Museum thought to have been created in the mid to late 1690’s, and a third, thought to be the first known image of a coffeehouse, dated 1674. These images all show groups of men sitting around tables in Coffee-houses, with coffee cups and smoking pipes in hand. Then I will analyze three textual sources from similar time periods, before following this up by comparing the trends between the two types of sources.

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