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Coffee Houses

…coffee to make you smile

The history of Coffee Houses…

Egalitarian, informative sources of enlightenment

Coffee houses became common across the Arabian Peninsula as trade in coffee spread from its first known source in Ethiopia.

Their patrons not only drank coffee but also gathered for conversation, music, to play chess and keep up to date with the news.

Coffee houses quickly became such important centres for the exchange of information that they were often referred to as “Schools of the Wise.”

However, for rulers, they were often seen as hotbeds for radical ideas and there were attempts to ban them.

Sultan Murad IV decreed death to coffee drinkers in the Ottoman Empire. King Charles II dispatched spies to infiltrate London’s coffeehouses, which he saw as the original source of “false news.”

In England, the first coffee house was opened in Oxford and although it has gone through many changes it still exists today. Locals called it and other subsequent coffee houses “penny universities”.

The main centre for coffee houses, however, was in London.

The first was opened in 1652, in the early days of the reign of King Charles II. Thereafter they proliferated across the city and became known as places where it was possible to engage in civilised debate, pick up the latest news and exchange ideas. They were egalitarian places where patrons sat around communal tables usually liberally supplied with the latest news sheets and pamphlets.

The coffee, whose beans were roasted then ground by the owners of the houses, was of variable quality, served in dishes, black and reportedly not very palatable without the liberal use of sugar, which had begun to be imported from the slave plantations in the Caribbean.

Concerned by the proliferation of ideas the king attempted to ban them, but the ban lasted for just 11 days.

Most coffee houses catered to a specific clientele; the Grecian Coffee House near Fleet Street was a meeting place for Whigs as well as members of the Royal Society.

Will’s coffee house was a favourite of poets and writers, while Jonathan’s Coffee House, in Exchange Alley, gave birth to the London Stock Exchange and Lloyd’s Coffee House, a favourite with sailors and merchants, was the origin of the insurers Lloyds of London.

Coffee houses spread to the USA, where, after the Boston Tea Party and the start of the American War of Independence, it was seen as patriotic to drink coffee.

As in London, so in New York, where Merchant’s Coffee House was favoured by merchants, the result was the Bank of New York and a reorganisation of the New York Chamber of Commerce.

No matter where they took root, it seems the coffee houses were centres for new ideas and thought, whatever the ruling classes did to try and stamp them out.

…coffee to make you smile
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