A Catalyst of Social Change – The British Coffeehouse Circa 18th Century London

By Danny LoPiccolo

By the end of the 17th century, the British Empire was effectively controlling the commodity of coffee through its colonial system. The product made its way back to England from her colonies where coffeehouses became immensely popular. Coffeehouses provided a place for social and intellectual thought which mirrored the ideology shift that was happening in Europe with its Enlightenment thinkers. Author Tom Standage notes that coffee became the drink of the “information workers” in society – people like scientists and merchants who sat at desks thinking rather than doing physical labor (134). The coffeehouse was instrumental in shaping the public opinion in its day. British historian and politician Lord Macaulay, looking back at the role of the coffeehouse, said in his 1848 book History of England that "The coffee-houses were the chief organs through which the public opinion of the metropolis vented itself." Speaking about the powerful role of coffeehouses in the city of London in particular, he said that "Foreigners remarked that the coffee-house was that which especially distinguished London from all other cities; that the coffee-house was the Londoner's home, and that those who wished to find a gentleman commonly asked, not whether he lived in Fleet Street or Chancery Lane, but whether he frequented the Grecian or the Rainbow" (Chrystal). The coffeehouse represented a new Londonian institution that stimulated political and intellectual thought by providing a place for like-minded individuals to discuss politics, news, business and economics in the public eye.

British coffeehouses served the beverage in the 1700s to a society that had no prior experience with the stimulant. The coffeehouses sold food items as well as hot chocolate and tea. They commonly acted as auction houses for a variety of goods such as art and books. They served as a hub for social and economic activity. Many male merchants would frequent multiple coffee shops, especially in London where they were the most densely clustered. Coffeehouses were public and because of this, men from different trades and backgrounds would encounter one another in a sober environment which helped mold public opinion on political issues. "In London, coffeehouses were places of unrestrained political discussion and were even used as the headquarters of political parties" (Standage, 167). The association between coffeehouses and intellectuals was common and despite not all patrons being from the upper or middle class, the idea of a sophisticated, wealthy consumer was perpetrated as a social standard and was the ideal for any commoner to strive towards. The imagery of coffeehouse patrons wearing expensive clothing and having a sophisticated lifestyle is represented in many of the paintings, writings, and depictions from the time period and serves to showcase the societal standards set by this public place of assembly for people to gather to drink and spread ideas. The study of these trends is important in helping us visualize the lives of those who lived in 18th century London and how the commodity of coffee brought about said societal trends.

Coffeehouses were especially prominent in the city of London at the end of the 17th and throughout the 18th century. Yet their rise saw several contradictions. One author put that the coffeehouse “became a masculine space, devoted especially to news, to reading and writing, to business, to gossip and to intelligence” (Ellis 2004, 81). Yet despite coffeehouses acting as a center for male thought, the patrons of coffeehouses saw a decrease in their masculinity in the form of talk and gossip which was very feminine for the time. Additionally, while the coffeehouse patrons dressed and acted as elitist as they could to make themselves seem more sophisticated to their peers, the outcome of the coffeehouse as an institution ironically led to a drop in the dominance political elites had over political discourse. “The coffeehouse signaled a break with the elitist politics of the first half of the seventeenth century, forging the way for a more inclusive and secular political culture… it set the scene for the emergence of modern democratic society in the West” (McCabe). The effects of this cultural transformation were an increase in the political and social power of the common English man – and a removal of the idea that one must be an elite to have an idea of worth. In this exhibit I analyze these consequences of the rise of the coffeehouse and examine how the coffeehouse became a unique entity of its own.

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