The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffee House
by Brian Cowan
Yale University Press, 2005
Review by Brittany Claytor
I'm just going to say it: I don't like coffee. I own a coffee maker, and keep a large, red tub of Folgers (probably expired) for houseguests, but I would much rather begin my day with an icy cold Diet Coke than with a hot, bitter cup of coffee. Perhaps my dislike stems from the summer I spent working at a Barnes & Nobel Café in the Chicago suburbs. I poured espresso, steamed milk, and brewed coffee: dark roast, light roast, house blend, coffee from Sumatra, coffee with caffeine, coffee without caffeine. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get rid of the smell. It was on my hands and in my hair, it coated my skin and seeped into my pores despite all my washing, scrubbing, and rinsing.
But before Barnes & Noble Café and Starbucks, before Caribou Coffee and Keurig, there was Britain's first coffee house, which opened in 1650 in Oxford, England. And before there was dark roast and light roast, lattes and cappuccinos, there was the coffee of the early modern period: unfiltered, often made with Thames' river water, and weaker than the beverage as we know it today. The spread of coffee, coffee houses, and their changing social, political, and economic significance between 1600 and 1720 is the subject of Brian Cowan's The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffee House. The early coffee houses offered a place for virtuosi—elite gentlemen interested in science, the natural world, and everything curious and exotic—to gather and discuss the latest political events, scientific theories, and discoveries from around the globe. Public inns, alehouses, and taverns still did a brisk business, but the coffee house offered a more “civil” alternative by providing a beverage that was not associated with intoxication and disorder, as was alcohol and the places that served it. Though Cowan reminds us, "Of course, coffee houses were not necessarily in practice more civil and sober locales than taverns or alehouses, but by and large they were perceived to be so by contemporaries. And that made all the difference." Coffee and coffee houses made the new and exotic safe for British consumption.
Coffee drinking and coffee houses began multiplying, and by the end of the seventeenth century London had between several hundred to over one thousand such establishments, many with their own distinct clientele. Amsterdam and Richard's for Whigs, Sam's for Tories, Lloyd's for those in the maritime and insurance businesses, and Child's for clergymen and physicians, not to mention the smaller neighborhood establishments. The early modern coffee house wasn't all cream and sugar though. The government tried to exercise financial and political control through taxes, licensing, and closures; women proprietors and servants were often viewed as crossing the period's social and sexual boundaries; and there was concern that instead of fostering informed, intellectual debates, coffee houses were becoming forums for mere gossip and self-promotion.
Though Cowan presumes a strong knowledge of early modern England—especially its politics—he presents a well documented, compelling case that despite the growth of coffee houses during this period, they served largely as a venue for the country's elite gentlemen to gather and maintain their position at the top of British society.
Despite my summer job's olfactory drawbacks, it made for great people watching. Based on my observations, Cowan's connection of early modern British coffee houses with society's elite rings true, as the modern day coffee house also tends to showcase a privileged population: The suburban mom, perfectly coiffed hair and make-up, latest Coach purse, small toddler in costly jogging stroller: "Skim, grande zebra mocha with an extra shot and no whip." The college student, artfully torn jeans, expertly distressed t-shirt, Jansport backpack: "Venti cappuccino with extra foam, soy milk, two pumps of vanilla and one pump of hazelnut." The business man, expensive looking suit, expensive looking shoes, and even more expensive looking briefcase: "Tall, skinny, pumpkin spiced chi latte with one shot, extra hot. And I'm in a hurry." Of course you are.