‘Young law students would arrive at their coffee house, newspapers in hand, and saunter away their time, admiring one another’s get-ups’.
With these words, written in her light-hearted re-telling of English history Life Among the English (1942), Rose Macaulay gently lampoons the eighteenth-century coffee house and reveals the pretensions of those who frequented such establishments three hundred years earlier.
Macaulay’s Life playfully charts the history of the English, from Ancient Briton to the ‘writer’s own Britain’, deducing that ‘owing to the weather, English social life must have largely occurred indoors’. Unlike most of the text’s comedy, which is derived from the ludicrously unfamiliar practices of the past, the account of the coffee house gets a laugh because it is familiar. More striking still, Macaulay’s description of the coffee house is still funny today, because it remains applicable. The history of the representation of the coffee house is apparently one of remarkable consistency.
Even today coffee is connected with fashionable sophistication. As a cultural icon the coffee house stands alone in a broadly imagined hinterland, somewhere between the stuffy cloisters and libraries of the University academy and the more hipster corners of Shoreditch, Manchester and certain stretches of Sheffield’s own Division Street. The contemporary coffee shop yearns nostalgically, almost subconsciously, for the coffee culture of a bygone era. It aspires to a representation of the Coffee House which originated during the eighteenth century.
The most enduring descriptions of eighteenth-century coffee house culture survive in printed publications that were produced to be read in just such coffee houses. At the dawn of the eighteenth century, London was becoming Britain’s first twenty-four hour consumer society. Brand new oil burning street lights meant that shopping and socialising were no longer restricted to day-light hours. Instead, you could buy anything at any time. This was a period that welcomed coffee, tea, porcelain, sugar, chocolate, dictionaries, novels and newspapers. It became the fashion to drop into club-like coffee houses where people could discuss politics, literature, culture – and crucially – their own lives, as thanks to technological advances and lapses in licensing rules, news and gossip now permeated the printed world.
It was into this society that Joseph Addison and Richard Steele released a periodical titled The Spectator (1711). This paper’s manifesto was to fill these coffee houses with knowledge, culture, ideas and, above all, conversation. As the paper’s fictional editor modestly claims: ‘I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses’.
Addison and Steele’s infamous ambitions are no doubt responsible for Macaulay’s parodic vision of the eighteenth-century coffee house, where she finds that ‘conversation was ardently pursued; men rose of a morning, met at their pet coffee house, exchanged the news, and talked; later they went to dinner and still talked’.
But this image of the coffee house as a public sphere of enlightened debate and discussion is, as Macaulay points out, undermined by the fact that these coffee houses were commercial enterprises that preyed upon the pretentious, extorting money from lazy posers in exchange for a den where they could imagine themselves to be great thinkers, philosophers and politicians. In the eighteenth century the coffee house was satirised for the same reason. Memorably, when the heroine of Alexander Pope’s mock-epic The Rape of the Lock (1712) arrives in a London coffee house, her commodity of choice is introduced as:
Coffee, (which makes the politician wise,
And see thro’ all things with half shut eyes).
By the early twentieth century the coffee house of The Spectator was seen as a kind of half-waking dream, alluding the clinical scrutiny of the biographer or historian. As Virgina Woolf describes in her 1928 novel Orlando:
To give a truthful account of London society at that or indeed any other time, is beyond the powers of the biographer or the historian. Only those who have little need of truth, and no respect for it – the poets and the novelists – can be trusted to do it, for this is one of those cases where truth does not exist. Nothing exists. The whole thing is a miasma – a mirage.
Nevertheless, the dream was a popular and lucrative one. The coffee house that Addison and Steele inhabited might not have been quite the enlightened hub of culture that they reported, but in penning this imagined coffee house they created a legacy that still survives today.
What these coffee shops also did, and what they continue to do today, is provide a space for communities. The coffee house remains a place for people to be with other people and that alone is worth celebrating. Even Woolf’s Orlando, unsettled by the disjunction between her idea of the coffee house and the commercial reality, acknowledged that contradictions of coffee house culture do not diminish its splendour: ‘At one and the same time, therefore, society is the most powerful concoction in the world and society has no existence whatsoever’.
Adam James Smith is an honorary research fellow in the University of Sheffield English Department. Adam will be co-hosting an event with Twin Café in Sheffield on April 21st titled ‘Coffee, Culture and Conversation in the Eighteenth Century.’ The event will take place at the ‘Union Street’ pop-up café. Tickets are £3 and proceeds go to Twin Café’s chosen charities. Full details can be found here.
The film that inspired the event can be viewed here.
You can follow Adam on Twitter @elementaladam.