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Coffee Shops: A Brief History

These days, enjoying a cup of coffee or tea with a slice of cake has become the norm in our lives. I quite often go out for a good ol’ Somerset Cream Tea with my friends and am very partial to a strong Americano coffee (I know, so civilised).

Being a history buff, I couldn’t help but wonder where our “coffee culture” has stemmed from. I was surprised as to how little has changed since the roasted coffee bean was introduced to us all the way from Asia.

Historians have explained that the coffeehouses in the UK grew in popularity during the 17th and 18th century. They became “public social places where people would meet for conversation and commerce whilst drinking coffee”. Judging from what we all talk about while enjoying a cappuccino at Starbucks, there is not a whole lot of difference between 1754 and 2016!

Coffee was initially used for medicinal purposes before being introduced as a leisure drink. The first English “coffeehouse” was introduced in 1650, the city of choice was Oxford and the man with the plan was Jewish entrepreneur Jacob Evelyn. The city of Oxford was ideal for such an establishment and he called the shop “Angel”. A University city with plenty of aspiring poets, writers and scholars, the coffeehouse became a popular location for debates, discussions and writing.

Start

“Coffeehouses became places where people gathered to drink coffee, learn the news of the day and perhaps meet with other local residents to discuss matters of mutual concern.”

As historian Brian Cowan has explained, the coffeehouse setting was more civilised than the alehouses, where alcohol was being served. The absence of alcohol and a quieter environment allowed for heathy debate and discussions, which was very much needed during the period of restoration where arguments needed to be aired. The origins and establishment of coffeehouses are now associated with the “Age of Enlightenment” due to the nature in which they helped with the growth in culture of society.

London soon followed with establishing coffeehouse, following the success in Oxford. In 1652 the first London coffeehouse was opened by Pasqua Rosee, followed by “Temple Bar” in 1656. The “Art Of Debate” was still encouraged and chocolate was also introduced to complement the caffeinated drinks. A tradition that still remains in the form of Mochas.

London

As the 18th century drew to a close, the coffeehouses were instrumental in creating a society where “social climbing” was a possibility, as shown in novels such as Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe. The houses being open to all social levels of punters created a civilised culture full of art, literature and debate and created a civilised city environment where opportunities became more available for all.

The thirst for coffee waned during the 19th century. The thirst for tea became more popular and “exclusive clubs” were formed by local entrepreneurs. Historians have discussed that one of the reasons for the increase in tea drinkers was due to “coffee merchants becoming too big for their boots, demanding from the government”. The East India Company started importing tea for the owners of the new “exclusive tea clubs” who saw a gap in the market. They remained a welcome alternative to the inns and pubs.

Exclusive Tea Rooms

Tea shops and tea rooms flourished in the 1880s, albeit with a different audience. The new consumers became “women of leisure”. During a period where “leisure for women” was becoming more popular and with department stores such as “Selfridges” established, the new tea shops and tea rooms were a favoured location for women as a male escort was not needed. Just like present day, nothing like a tea break when shopping!

Victorian

These days the coffee shop is just as popular as they were all those centuries ago! The tastes of tea and coffee have also expanded in the last 15 years, with us all falling in love with continental styles of coffees such as “lattes”. Our tastes might have become more adventurous and more particular, but the concept of the coffee shop, in a social sense, definitely hasn’t! Now to get Dan to put the kettle on for me, I am due a cuppa! 

Posted by: Michael Hurd

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