Magazine article The Spectator

The Coffee House: A Cultural History

Magazine article The Spectator

The Coffee House: A Cultural History

Article excerpt

When beans don't mean Heinz THE COFFEE HOUSE: A CULTURAL HISTORY by Markman Ellis Weidenfeld, £18.99, pp. 304, ISBN 0297843192 £16.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

'Caffeine is the most widely used drug in the world, exceeding all other common drugs including nicotine and alcohol. The value of the coffee traded on international commodity markets is surpassed only by oil.' Such bald facts set the scene for this readable and scholarly account of an important and curiously neglected phenomenon. Rich in evocative detail (our forebears took their coffee black, strong and bitter, a brew 'redolent of stewed prunes, burnt beans and soot') and strong on social, political and economic context, The Coffee House is a book for the coffee-lover and historian alike.

Synonymous with trade and news, coffee-houses were firmly established in British metropolitan life by the Restoration period, but one man's news is another man's propaganda and Charles II's administration quickly came to view the coffee-house as a location of both written and spoken sedition. However, all attempts to close the coffee-houses foundered and they remained the talking shops of merchants and intelligencers, men of letters and of science.

Markman Ellis makes much of the significance of the coffee-house as a space in which men of all classes mixed freely and enjoyed the same hospitality at the same price: 'In the coffee-house, unlike all other social institutions of the period, rank and birth had no place.' He also makes strong claims for the influence of the coffee-house as a shaper of the changing world:

In the following decades [after the Restoration] the coffee-houses continued to he cnihlematic locations for debate on puhlic affairs by those outside the higher echelons of political life. Through such discussions and debates, a new notion emerged that there could be such a thing as an unofficial knowledge of affairs of state, that the common people had an interest in evaluating how they were governed. Such a notion, however embryonic here, finds its legacy in the modern notion of public opinion.

Ellis's survey takes us on to the age of Addison and Steele who, through the pages of The Spectator, disseminated a Utopian ideal of the coffee-house as 'a haven of rational and polite discussion open to all citizens', and on further to the institution's decline in the 19th century, when its egalitarian aspect disappeared, as varying kinds of establishment catered to different social classes. …

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