The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse

The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse

by Brian Cowan
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Yale University Press


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The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse

What induced the British to adopt foreign coffee-drinking customs in the seventeenth century? Why did an entirely new social institution, the coffeehouse, emerge as the primary place for consumption of this new drink? In this lively book, Brian Cowan locates the answers to these questions in the particularly British combination of curiosity, commerce, and civil society. Cowan provides the definitive account of the origins of coffee drinking and coffeehouse society, and in so doing he reshapes our understanding of the commercial and consumer revolutions in Britain during the long Stuart century.

Britain’s virtuosi, gentlemanly patrons of the arts and sciences, were profoundly interested in things strange and exotic. Cowan explores how such virtuosi spurred initial consumer interest in coffee and invented the social template for the first coffeehouses. As the coffeehouse evolved, rising to take a central role in British commercial and civil society, the virtuosi were also transformed by their own invention.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300106664
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 11/01/2005
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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The Social Life of Coffee


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2005 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10666-4

Chapter One

An Acquired Taste

The Discovery of Coffee: Virtuoso Travelers

The first printed reference to coffee in a European text occurred in a medical text by the French scholar Carolus Clusius (or Charles de l'Écluse in his vernacular) entitled Aromatum et simplicium aliquot medica-mentorum apud Indos nascientum historia (1575). Clusius himself had learned of coffee several years before, perhaps as early as 1568, when his fellow botanist Alphoncius Pansius in Padua described the strange new plant in a letter along with some sample seeds. At nearly the same time that Clusius was introducing the coffee plant to the European medical community, the German physician Leonhard Rauwolf was traveling in the Levant in search of the foreign and exotic plants he had read about in the works of Theophrastus, Pliny the Elder, and Galen during his education at the University of Montpellier. In the introduction to the account of his travels titled Aigentliche Beschreibung der Raiss inn die Morgenlaender (1583), Rauwolf stated, "from my infancy I alwaies had a great desire to travel into foreign parts, and to enquire out learned and famous men,that I might get something out of them to encrease my stock of knowledge." This desire was later directed toward the Levant when he learned from his texts that "several rare plants of great use in physick ... were said to grow in Greece, Syria, and Arabia, &c.... and from thence" he claimed, "I was enflamed with a vehement desire to search out, and view such plants growing spontaneously in their native places, and propounded also to my self to observe the life, conversation, customs, manners, and religion of the inhabitants of those countries." Rauwolf's journey was funded by his brother-in-law, Melchior Manlich, a prominent Augsburg merchant whose firm was already involved in the Levant trade and wanted Rauwolf to return with information about Eastern "drugs and simples, and other things convenient and profitable for his trade." The result was his extremely well-received Aigentliche Beschreibung, a travel narrative in which he claimed to include only "what I have seen, experienc'd, observ'd and handl'd my self." His narrative also follows the pilgrimage trope inspired by the travels of Galen, "the proto-type of the physician traveler," that was a common refrain in the writings of the curiosi. Rauwolf's professed Wanderlust, his familiarity with the ancient authorities on exotic materia medica, his desire to verify these texts with his own experience, and finally his close relationship with the overseas merchant community all were characteristic of the English virtuosi.

Rauwolf's work was indeed well known by the English virtuosi. Although it was not translated into English until 1693, and the only printed copy was to be found in the Arundelian Library at Gresham College, various manuscript copies of it had been available long before that, and the work was used as an important authority by English botanists. The Gresham copy of the book was in high demand among the members of the Royal Society, as Dr. Daniel Cox learned when he raised the ire of his fellows by borrowing the work from the library without returning it for nearly two years.

In this work, they found the first description by a European of coffee drinking and the social rituals surrounding it in Ottoman culture. The Turks, Rauwolf observed, "have a very good Drink, by them called chaube (coffee), that is almost as black as ink, and very good in illness, chiefly that of the stomach." Rauwolf's observations on coffee were soon to be accompanied by those of nearly every other traveler to the Ottoman, Persian, and Mughal empires of the early seventeenth century. Europeans first learned about coffee in travel narratives that described the exotic customs of the peoples living in the large "oriental" empires of Asia. These early reports about coffee and the social rituals surrounding its consumption made it appear at once both strange and familiar. While they expressed wonder at the notion of drinking a dishful of a hot black liquor, the travel writers inevitably attempted to draw comparisons between coffee consumption and more familiar European drink culture, especially the alcohol-centered rituals of the tavern or the alehouse.

A common refrain was the bitter and unpleasant taste of the coffee drink itself. Adam Olearius described "a certain black water, which [the Persians] call cahwa, made of a fruit brought out of AÆgypt, and which is in colour like ordinary wheat, and in tast like Turkish Wheat, and is of the bigness of a little bean.... They make this drink thereof, which hath as it were the tast of a burnt crust, and is not pleasant to the palate." George Manwaring found coffee to be "nothing toothsome, nor hath any good smell," but he admitted "it is very wholesome," and similar remarks may be found in the accounts of Thomas Herbert and James Howell. Because these travelers could not recognize the tastefulness of coffee, the salutary effects of the drink were emphasized instead as the primary reason for consuming it. William Lithgow thought coffee was "good to expell the cruditie of raw meates." William Finch believed coffee was "good for the head and stomacke," and Herbert was told by the Persians that "it expels melancholy, purges choler, [and] begets mirth." Some, like William Parry, thought coffee drinking "will intoxicate the brain, like our Methleglin," a spiced sort of mead of Welsh origin, often used for medicinal purposes.

The most familiar analogy made was in fact one between coffee and the alcoholic drinks of Europe. The coffeehouses of Asia were sometimes likened to European taverns or English alehouses, and Samuel Hartlib called the earliest English coffeehouse a "Turkish alehouse." But the coffee consumed there was often mentioned with, and compared to, other well-known but exotic psychoactive drugs in these travel narratives. Herbert noted that the Persians commonly drank their coffee along with "tobacco suckt through water," and this led him to observe that they also commonly used opium. There is substantial evidence to suggest that Turkish coffeehouses were indeed popular centers of opium consumption. George Sandys thought that the Turks took opium because they are "giddy headed, and turbulent dreamers," and he added, "perhaps for the selfe-same cause they also delight in Tobacco." Along with these accounts of intoxicated fantasies, travel writers often noted that the Asian coffeehouses were centers of licentious behavior: the Turkish "Coffamen" kept "beautiful boyes, who serve as stales to procure them customers," and the Persian coffeehouses "keep young boys: in some houses they have a dozen, some more, some less; they keep them very gallant in apparel; these boys are called Bardashes, which they do use in their beastly manner, instead of women."

These stories reinforced traditional European beliefs, obtained primarily from a familiarity with ancient Roman writings on the Asian origins of corrupt vices, in the luxurious, effeminate, and corrupt nature of oriental societies. Yet they also echoed another well-entrenched trope, the public "tippling" house as a source of vice and unwholesome social gatherings. The association was so clear that Robert Burton declared that the "Turkes in their Coffa-houses, which much resemble our Tavernes ... will labour hard all day long to be drunk at night ... in a tippling feast." The "curious-ness" of coffee and coffee consumption lay in the ways in which the drink and the means of drinking it were bizarre to customary European sensibilities and yet nevertheless ultimately recognizable as akin to those same sensibilities.

But what was the purpose behind these accounts of unfamiliar Asian drinking customs? Did the writers intend merely to titillate their readers with stories of foreign vices and oddities, or did they have a different, perhaps pedagogical, aim? The literature of exotic travel in the early modern era differed from that of the Middle Ages, which was filled with fabulous tales of the exotic creatures and opulent wealth which were thought to be abundant in the orient. The new exotic travel literature also failed to follow the predominant themes of standard English virtuoso travel literature, which served as veritable guides for prospective virtuoso grand tourists and thus focused on the more accessible travel sites in France and Italy above all, as well as Germany or the Low Countries. But there was no such thing as an oriental grand tour, a fact well known to Thomas Browne when he told his son, "beleeve it, no excursion into Pol[and], Hung[ary], or Turkey addes advantage or reputation unto a schollar." So the exotic travel narratives were concerned less with adumbrating the proper etiquette governing polite sociability abroad than with demonstrating the usefulness of the information they conveyed to the advancement of learning and the promotion of the national interest.

Henry Blount claimed that he set out on his Turkish travels in order to gain a better understanding of "humane affaires," which he thought "advances best, in observing of people, whose institutions much differ from ours; for customes conformable to our owne, or to such wherewith we are already acquainted, doe but repeat our old observations, with little acquist of new." He desired to find out for himself whether "the Turkish way appeare absolutely barbarous, as we are given to understand, or rather an other kinde of civilitie, different from ours, but no lesse pretending." After enjoying the hospitality of his Turkish guests, which included an introduction to the practice of coffee drinking, Blount's conclusions inclined toward the latter. Thus one should not find it too surprising that upon Blount's return to England he became one of the earliest proponents of coffee drinking, and a habitué of the first coffeehouses. Indeed, John Aubrey wrote that Blount "dranke nothing but water or coffee."

Others could find an even loftier purpose in distant travel. Thomas Coryate's translation of Hermanus Kirchnerus's remarkable oration in praise of travel invoked the justification of divine providence:

[God] hath by his divine will & heavenly providence so disposed this Universe, and so prudently distinguished it with that admirable diversity & order, that one country is more fruitfull then others; so that in one and the selfe same reigon all and the same things do not grow: as Arabia is more plentitfull of Frankinsence and spices then other countries; one territory yeeldeth plenty of wine, another of corne, another greater store of other things.... So also those copious and admirable wits, so arts, sciences, and disciplines, which make us more human, or rather more divine, are not included in one place, in one province, or one house ... but are divided and dispersed throughout the whole compass of the earth.... If we will be partakers of these such exellent gifts, covet to enjoy these so great riches and delights, and desire to be beautified with these so singular ornaments of learning, we must needs undertake journeyes & long voyages to those renowned places, wherein this fragrancy and most heavenly plenty doth harbor.

This was a contentious position, for providence could just as well be invoked to justify the self-sufficiency of each land's natural provisions. But Kirchnerus's defense of cosmopolitan learning and the benefits of international commerce provided sufficient justification to those virtuosi and merchants who desired to seek out the diversity of natural and artificial goods beyond the seas.

John Davies's dedication of the translation of Olearius to the Russia Company similarly invoked the economic benefits that might accrue from a knowledge of foreign cultures and exotic commodities "in as much as this Kingdom, especially this City [i.e., London], begins to disperse its industrious inhabitants, and spread the wings of its trade into the most remote cantons of the world." In the eyes of their authors, the proto-ethnographies of the exotic travel narratives were both "curious" and potentially useful, perhaps even profitable to the wealth of the nation.

Exotica and the Advancement of Learning

Knowledge of foreign, and especially exotic, cultures was central to virtuoso culture. Rarities from overseas, especially the Americas or the East Indies, were de rigueur in any serious virtuoso cabinet of curiosities, and the customs and commodities of exotic peoples were the subject of many a cabinet conversation or an epistolary disquisition. Although a cynically formalist understanding of the virtuoso fascination with the exotic might well emphasize that the primary function of these items and the knowledge about them was simply to provide plentiful opportunities for the virtuoso gentleman to show off the breadth of his learning, and indeed the genuineness of his curiosity, to his peers, we should not ignore the professions of the virtuosi themselves of their commitment to an ultimately utilitarian project for the advancement of learning and the national interest.

A major source of inspiration for the virtuosic interest in exotic cultures and their commodities lay, as with so many other aspects of virtuoso culture, in the writings of Francis Bacon. Bacon's vision of a comprehensive natural history, which came to dominate his thinking toward the end of his life, stressed the need for the diligent collection of reliable observations about the products and workings of the natural world. Such a natural history therefore required extensive knowledge of the plants and commodities of exotic cultures. The strangest data were indeed the best, as "Baconian facts were handpicked for their recalcitrance, anomalies that undermined superficial classifications and exceptions that broke glib rules." The utopian Salomon's House described in Bacon's New Atlantis (1627) contained "dispensatories, or shops of medicines" which held "such variety of plants and living creatures more than you have in Europe." The breweries and kitchens also contained "drinks brewed with several herbs, and roots, and spices ... some of the drinks are such, as they are in effect meat and drink both," as chocolate was said to be. Other foods there allowed men to fast for long periods of time.

Travel writings were an important source of data for Bacon's natural histories. He tried to incorporate as much information as he could about every new exotic drug or commodity that he was aware of into his encyclopedic accounts in the Sylva Sylvarum (1627) and the Historia Vitae et Mortis (1638). Many of these were classified together: coffee, betel roots and leaves, tobacco, and opium Bacon thought were all "medicines that condense and relieve the spirits" even though "they are taken after several manners," coffee and opium being consumed as liquids, tobacco as smoke, and betel by chewing. He was impressed by the reports that the Turks claimed that coffee drinking "doth not a little sharpen them both in their courage and in their wits." Although "if it be taken in a large quantity, it affects and disturbs the mind; whereby it is manifest," Bacon concluded, coffee "is of the same nature with opiates." Noting that the Greeks, the Arabians, and the Turks all commended the use of such opiates for medicinal purposes, and that they may be conducive to "the prolongation of life," through "condensing the spirits," he thought it advisable that opiates be consumed at least once a year after adolescence.


Excerpted from The Social Life of Coffee by BRIAN COWAN Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


A Note on Styles and Conventions....................xi
Part I Coffee: From Curiosity to Commodity....................5
1. An Acquired Taste....................16
2. Coffee and Early Modern Drug Culture....................31
3. From Mocha to Java....................55
Part II Inventing the Coffeehouse....................79
4. Penny Universities?....................89
5. Exotic Fantasies and Commercial Anxieties....................113
Part III Civilizing the Coffeehouses....................147
6. Before Bureaucracy....................152
7. Policing the Coffeehouse....................193
8. Civilizing Society....................225

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