Magazine article History Today

Surfing the Coffehouse

Magazine article History Today

Surfing the Coffehouse

Article excerpt

The breathless journalistic reporting about the Internet is all meant to emphasise its utter novelty. Humanity, we are told, is faced with an unprecedented variety of information and information sources. It is the sort of reporting that one expects of a news industry whose profits depend on helping us forget the past, and orientating us to tomorrow's edition.

But if journalists were stronger on history they might be aware of a time in the seventeenth century when the public was faced with something similar. It was called the coffeehouse and it brought together a wide variety of information sources and the customers who could make use of them. Just as we are able to assemble our own news perspective from the sources now available, so they were doing in the Restoration.

Very suddenly, an information system based on scarcity gave way to one of abundance, transforming politics and culture. In exchange for the penny for the first `dish' of coffee, customers found spread out on the large tables a number of things that could be pieced together to form a picture of the wider world. Like those who can access the Internet today, Restoration Englishmen (and sometimes women) took the initiative in seeking out information.

In the 1650s and 1660s, many people in London and leading provincial towns formed the habit of frequent, even daily, visits to the coffeehouse. For the proprietors of these establishments, taking in papers of all kinds was a way of attracting customers, since by some accounts the English had not quite got the hang of making the coffee.

For a start, there was always an official newsbook. In 1655 the Protectorate reduced news publications to just one -- the Publick Intelligencer, which appeared on Monday. Apparently even so powerful a regime did not think it possible to ban the periodical news habit outright; it probably accepted a censored paper as a way of framing discussion. There was also a Thursday edition, which recycled much of the same news, called Mercurius Politicus. These sixteen-page quartos marked a notable decline from the enterprising and often chatty diurnals and mercuries of the 1640s. In fact, they reverted to the old `coranto' format, with news divided according to the foreign source of the report: Mantua, Paris, The Hague, Cleve, Amsterdam, Lithuania, Lubeck, Cologne, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Vienna sometimes Bristol or Westminster, mixed in with government proclamations, book advertisements and notices of lost horses. There was some news from Scotland and Ireland, but little else that would reflect on the domestic situation.

Everyone knew this was a managed and monopolistic production and yet they read it. Some even bound back-copies to form a sort of history of their time. Clearly, they had acquired an appetite for periodical news, and the newsbooks, provided a rickety skeleton for coffeehouse discussion. This could be augmented by the handwritten newsletters, which carried something more like `insider information'. Just as Internet periodicals are now thinking of ways to withhold information from those who will not subscribe, so newsletters tried to provide an elite service. But newsletters, too, might be made available by coffeehouse proprietors eager to increase their business. Typically they contained about 800 words, of mostly foreign news.

The government also had no objection to the weekly appearance of the London `bills of mortality', which sold surprisingly well and were used as conversation-starters. John Graunt, who based his pioneering demographic studies on them, observes that most readers took `them as a Text to talk upon, in the next Company'. And indeed there was a lot of what we would now call `human interest' in their statistics of personal tragedy. Later publications such as advertisers, magazines, and provincial papers excerpted the bills of mortality, drawing out their pathos. But there were practical conclusions to be drawn from the bills as well, like whether the plague figures made a retreat to one's country estate advisable or justified stocking more shrouds or black crepe. …

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