The History of the Coffee House

Coffee and cake at Sketch, London

Beginning in the ports and souks around the Horn of Africa, the bitter brew derived from the genus of plants known as Coffea, has records of being enjoyed in coffee houses as early as 1511 in the Islamic Holy City of Mecca, modern day Saudi Arabia.

Red Sea countries and locations key to the early spread of coffee

While little more than smoking dens littered with cushions and hookah pipes, these early establishments were influential enough on early Muslim society that prohibition was imposed by the local Pasha in belief of coffee’s role as an intoxicating agent and therefore in violation of Islam. Despite these restrictions in an early Arabic powerhouse, this humble new drinking establishment would be responsible for spreading enlightenment, intellectualism and culture across multiple empires, religions and continents – and all for the love of a naturally occurring bitter pesticide named coffee.

Although served hot from an infusion of the Coffea plant, this ancient form of coffee served out of steaming pots atop open fires in the public shops of Mecca, was merely a shadow of the smooth crèma layered brew of our modern addiction. With the effects of the roasted bean still to be discovered by the religious Sufis of Yemen, this early beverage was more likely a direct infusion of the dried coffee cherry (bean removed) known as Kish’r – a drink still consumed throughout the Arabian Peninsula today. Who exactly was the first to bring coffee cherries across the Red Sea from Ethiopia to Yemen, is a topic of great debate. With stories as rich as the plant in subject telling of multi-coloured coffee birds, plague ravaged princesses and dancing goats – it is known that a figure of influence within Sufism (a religious order of Islam who practice Ihsan, “perfection of worship”) was the first to established coffee drinking as a part of their prayer ceremonies. It’s thought that upon discovering the effects of caffeine, the plant was introduced for its ability to assist disciples of Sufism in remaining alert and lucid throughout late night worship.

The evolution from Arabia to the modern European coffee house would take almost another hundred years before the first Western traders would encounter what they initially called the “Wine of Araby”, and not in the hands of Arabs but the super power of the Ottoman Empire. After successfully defeating the Marmeluks in Egypt in 1517, the Ottomans acquired a country of historic and cultural development with strong links to Sufism. As such they also discovered a nation dominated by the drinking of coffee and the establishment of the coffee house. With all things that come with the capture of a new nation, the coffee bean and brew naturally came with it. By 1555 the Ottoman Empire would see the very first coffee house opened on their own home shores of Constantinople (later renamed Istanbul) by two Syrian merchants named Hakim and Shams. Ten years later, around 600 coffee selling establishments would be recorded in the city alone – the coffee house culture had finally been reborn.

Early Ottoman coffee house – Istanbul

If you were able to revisit an early 16th century Turkish coffee house, you’d discover coffee brewed on mass in large pots or cauldrons atop open fires often enhanced with the aroma of exotic spices like saffron, cardamom and even ambergris (dried whale vomit – honestly!). Like the multitude of cafes today which cater for all classes, coffee could be acquired throughout a range of different locations from humble souk kiosk to luxurious tree shaded gardens with bards, beautiful servant women and views over the Bosporus. This new world of comfort and engagement presented the Ottomans with one of the first public locations of social enlightenment outside of the constraints of religious or alcoholic venues. As such, these new places of population and sobriety became forums for intellectual debate, listening posts for news and meeting points for commerce and trade. In the more elite establishments patrons could hire their own Kaveghi to cater for all matters of coffee acquisition, brewing and service.

However the induction of coffee into what was the world’s longest standing Empire of the time, wasn’t without its hurdles. Since the Sufis of Yemen first began using coffee in the mid 15th century, the drink had already been banned more than twice in belief of its blasphemous role as an intoxicating beverage in the eyes of Islam. By the time the Ottomans tried to lay down their own prohibition in 1580, the drink was already too widely spread to be effective and merely went underground. As such prohibition wasn’t to last and when legally back in the public domain, continued its spread across the Empire and the Balkan states. With such a network of sober meeting houses throughout their nation, it was no surprise that many in power were concerned for their use as dens of conspiracy. With taverns previously associated as places of sedition and uprising, the coffeehouse presented a new threat to the power paranoid. While devious plans may be hatched during a night of alcohol fueled banter, it was coffee’s ability to help recall the details of said plan the following morning, which kept the grand Vizier awake at night [albeit that and his own love of coffee].

Tom King’s Coffee House by William Hogarth c.1720

While the West was not to adopt coffee until late in the establishment of the beverage, their role would grow to define its place in the world’s future. Despite trading with the bean and plant since before the 17th century, European merchant hubs Venice and Genoa saw coffee’s role in Europe merely as a product of medicinal benefit and not social consumption. A view which would quickly change when in 1651 a Lebanese Jewish entrepreneur remembered only as Jacob would open the West’s first coffee house in Oxford, England called the Angel Inn. Remembered in his personal writings, Jacob describes the Angel Inn as a place where coffee, “was by some who delighted in noveltie [sic] drank” (today another coffee house can be found on the site named “The Grand Cafe”). A second coffee house would be opened nearby the following year by another Jew named Cirques Jobson and by the time a third was opened three years after that by Arthur Tillyard, coffee had found a new home in the West. Of these new establishments, it would be Tillyard’s which would set the standard for future coffee houses to follow. With a focus on the more educated middle class patrons of Oxford, Tillyard charged two pence for a cup of coffee and one for entry (a lot in those days), allowing access to various newspapers, pamphlets, broadsheets, lectures and ballads. With such a fine spending patronage, future houses would follow suit developing the early nickname – Penny Universities. These new locations would pave the way for a new era in English society labelled by historians as the Age of Enlightenment, a period which saw a reform in the way intellectuality is pursued and accepted socially, and the coffee house would be at the heart of it. Through weekly meetings at Tillyards to discuss and debate maters if mutual scientific interest, The Royal Society was established, a syndicate which today advisers the English government on scientific matters. By 1672, the Royal Society were established enough to elect a lead chairman, they found one in the form of a promising young man named Isaac Newton and the rest they say is history.

In a city dedicated today as it was then to the students, the inspired youth of Oxford supplied the majority of the cities coffee house clientele. In a time before the university common room it is no surprise these young intellectuals flocked to the houses to meet, discuss, study and debate their specific areas of study, albeit while indulging a hot cup of Mocha (named after the Yemeni port by the same name from where coffee was initially acquired). In fact so popular were the student numbers that in 1679 the local mayor attempted a ban on all coffee houses from opening on Sundays to ensure the youth remained in either church or college. Needless to say it had little effect. However it wouldn’t be until London opened her first coffee house in 1652 at St Michael’s Alley in the city, that the coffee house would begin to influence an entire nation.

With England setting the trend for the modern coffee house in the form of “Penny Universities” and with coffee finally added to the desires of the western palate, a new era was born and coffee was it’s muse.

18th century London coffee house – c/o

While records show that coffee had already been enjoyed in France by a few lucky enough to associate with merchants of Arabia, the brew would not befriend the public at large until an Ottoman ambassador named Solomon Aga arrived to Paris. Representing Sultan Mehmed IV, Salomon and his retinue set up lavish residence in central Paris while awaiting an appointment to hold audience with the French King Louis XIV. Wasting no time, Solomon converted a grand Parisian town house into a palatial Turkish abode befitted with gilt fountains, the finest carpets and emerald encrusted tiling where guests could indulge in Oriental delicacies such as shisha tobacco and a rich brew called coffee. It was here that Solomon is credited with introducing the drink – and the manner in which it was traditionally served – to many of the cities elite of the time. One such visitor named Isaac D’Israeli best describes the occasion in his book Curiosities of Literature, by writing;

“On bended knee, the black slaves of the Ambassador, arrayed in the most gorgeous Oriental costumes, served the choicest Mocha coffee in tiny cups of egg-shell porcelain, hot, strong and fragrant, poured out in saucers of gold and silver, placed on embroidered silk doylies fringed with gold bullion, to the grand dames, who fluttered their fans with many grimaces, bending their piquant faces—be-rouged, be-powdered and be-patched—over the new and steaming beverage.”

Despite the attentions lavished upon Solomon and his fine brew, it would not be until he had departed Paris that coffee would become better established thanks to an Armenian member of his retinue named Pascal. Capitalising on the impact of his previous master, Pascal began by selling hot coffee (a.k.a. petit noir) at a stall in St Germain before opening Europe’s first coffee house in 1683 – an Orient inspired café located on Qui de l’Ecole near Pont Neuf, Paris. Unfortunately the public, while fond of coffee, preferred libations of a more alcoholic nature and as such Pascal packed up once more and moved to a place he knew coffee was already well established – England.

A French traveller to London in 1668 named Henri Misson gave us the best description of the early English coffee house, writing they were;

“…very numerous in London, [and] are extremely convenient. You have all manner of news there; you have a good Fire [sic], which you may sit by as long as you please; you have a Dish of Coffee; you meet your Friends for the transaction of Business, and all for a penny, if you don’t care to spend more”

It’s important to mention at this stage that while these were comfortable environments infused with the smell of brewing coffee atop large open fires, the coffee infusion primarily comprised of steeping course ground or smashed coffee beans into near boiling water and serving black. An expensive sweetener such as honey or sugar (even mustard!) was often available if affordable. The crèma rich espresso’s of our modern addiction would not be invented until the influence of the Italians at the beginning of the 20th century, as would the widespread addition of milk. For the esteemed gentry of these new fine establishments, naturally one was expected to adhere to a commonly unspoken law of civility. And should said civility be remiss, one could often find a guide written on the walls for reference, such as the following from a 17th century London coffee house:


Enter, Sirs, freely, but first, if you please,
Peruse our civil orders, which are these.

First, gentry, tradesmen, all are welcome hither,
And may without affront sit down together:
Pre-eminence of place none here should mind,
But take the next fit seat that he can find:
Nor need any, if finer persons come,
Rise up to assigne to them his room;
To limit men’s expence, we think not fair,
But let him forfeit twelve-pence that shall swear;
He that shall any quarrel here begin,
Shall give each man a dish t’ atone the sin;
And so shall he, whose compliments extend
So far to drink in coffee to his friend;
Let noise of loud disputes be quite forborne,
No maudlin lovers here in corners mourn,
But all be brisk and talk, but not too much,
On sacred things, let none presume to touch.
Nor profane Scripture, nor sawcily wrong
Affairs of state with an irreverent tongue:
Let mirth be innocent, and each man see
That all his jests without reflection be;
To keep the house more quiet and from blame,
We banish hence cards, dice, and every game;
Nor can allow of wagers, that exceed
Five shillings, which ofttimes much trouble breed;
Let all that’s lost or forfeited be spent
In such good liquor as the house doth vent.
And customers endeavour, to their powers,
For to observe still, seasonable hours.
Lastly, let each man what he calls for pay,
And so you’re welcome to come every day.

Copy of the Women’s Petition Against Coffee, 1650

By the mid 17th century a new kind of popular social media was rekindled thanks to the public attentions of the coffeehouse – the pamphlet. Similar to the freedom of expression available through the internet today, the pamphlet could be written to either advertise or publicise any product or opinion from anyone with the pennies to spend. And thanks to the coffeehouse, could now also be assured of an audience – albeit a sober one. One such campaign was from a London city based women’s group who, in 1674, wished to grow support for the Women’s Petition Against Coffee. Laying a direct attack on not just the patrons of the coffeehouses but their very manhood, the WPAC proclaimed that “Never did men wear greater breeches, or carry less in them of any mettle what soever [sic]…”. Referring to their frequenting of the coffeehouse it continued, “They come from it with nothing moist but their snotty noses; nothing stiffe [sic] but their joints, nor standing but their ears”. Without losing a beat or wasting time with creative metaphor’s, a short yet honest retort was soon printed simply entitled The Men’s Answer to the Women’s Petition Against Coffee, arguing that indeed coffee “…makes the erection more vigorous, the ejaculation more full, [and] adds a spiritualescence to the sperm”. While it may be difficult to prove or even define the exact “spiritualescence of sperm”, modern science can lend support this statement with evidence of caffeine helping to increase sperm mobility in males – scratch one for the boys!

The importance the coffeehouse played in popular society was not lost on the authorities either who used the most influential venues as public forums to read notices of general importance. By the mid 18th century, the coffeehouse society had spread to the new American colonies where, in 1776, the Merchants Coffee House of Philadelphia was selected as the first location to publicly announce the United States Declaration of Independence. When Admiral Nelson defeated the Spanish and French navies at Trafalgar in 1805, the first public address of the victory was publicly announced to “…the shipping interest at Lloyds coffee house” in central London.

Lloyds building of London – a.k.a. the Inside-Out Building.

Further influential coffee houses include, Will’s Coffee House near Scotland Yard Gate where a group of Naval officers first conceived the idea for the Naval uniform, the Jerusalem Coffee House in Cowpers Court, Cornhill which became the unofficial headquarters for the East India Company (later to be renamed the Jerusalem and East India Coffee House) and Jonathans Coffee House in Exchange Alley which is credited with evolving into the first modern stock exchange. Further credits to the coffee house go the foundation of the Freemasons and even the conceptualisation of the police force (a.k.a. Bow Street Runners), although both are subject to debate.

The Rake’s Rendezvous; Or The Midnight Revels. The Various Humours of Tom King’s Coffee House in Covent Garden. Taken from Hogarths Four Seasons – c/o British Museum

It is also well believed that subconsciously coffee had a further more important role to play in society. In a period where major cities held such incredibly poor standards of hygiene and clean water, many depended on fermented or distilled products for safe hydration [see: 1689 – Gin Epidemic]. As such it’s argued that coffee helped increase the general state of health by offering a safer means of sanitary consumption, as well as sobering up an otherwise oft intoxicated society.

By 1739, the New London Directories would list 695 coffee houses throughout the London boroughs with 551 in the city alone, the largest number of which was centered around the cities first in St Michaels Alley. By this time and with so many competitors, the coffee house had evolved into something closer resembling today’s modern drinking establishments with a venue to be found for all tastes and with coffee a prerequisite in the name only and no longer necessary in the offering. One of the most famous examples of these was Tom King’s Coffee House. While trading out of London’s Covent Garden with under the title of a coffee house, Tom King’s was more openly a den of gambling, drinking and prostitution. Open from the time the common tavern closes to the time the sun arises, the coffee house was equally a popular meeting place for the ill repute and respected alike with many renown intellectuals such as William Hogarth, Alexander Pope, John Gay and Henry Fielding in common attendance. Without any beds on the establishment grounds, Tom and his charismatic wife Mol avoided any legal prosecution in operating as a brothel yet were able to easily trade as a meeting point for ladies of the night and their would be suitors. The Kings became somewhat of an institution in London during their time and despite a large opposition from religious reformers, even King George II once visited the establishment yet stayed only briefly after being challenged to a fight by an ignorant punter. Captured at it’s most honest by famous satirical artist William Hogarth in his collection Four Seasons, Hogarth best describes the scene at Tom Kings with the poetic footnote;

“Here drunken Templars [sic], Rakes and men of taste, their constitutions and their substance waste. Here lustful strumpets with their bosoms bare, mix with a motley throng, drink, smoke and swear. Destruction lurks in their contagious breath, their eyes are basilisks, their jokes are death”.

Artists impression of a map of London coffee houses c.1660 – c/o Helen Cann

While most coffee houses were still intellectually driven, others used curiosity or practicality to attract their patrons. Of these, few are better remembered than the Chelsea Coffee House owned by James Salt (aka Don Salterno). As well as displaying oddities in jars including a “mermaid fish”, “mice skeletons” and an “instrument for scratching the Chinese ladies back”, the Chelsea Coffee House also offered the age old barber-surgeon skill of pulling teeth and bloody letting – albeit with the odd haircut or two.

By the mid to late 19th century, the coffee house revolution along with the newly styled “Age of Enlightenment” had reached its peak and began a steady decline replaced by – or rather evolved into – the modern hotel bar or gentlemen’s club. Despite the change in name, these locations were still places of intellectual institution in which patrons can find good company, coffee and fine liquor in mutual surroundings.

From humble beginnings in tribal Ethiopia to its religious use by the Sufis in Yemen, on the back of the Ottoman Empire until its Western foundation, the coffee bean would see an empire rise and fall, cross religious boundaries and help new nations such as the United States, India, Indonesia and South America develop into major trading powers. But above all, thanks to the role of the humble coffee house the modern world had discovered an age of intellectual advancement emphasised by the evolution of the police force, insurance system, stock exchange and a multitude of corporate societies.

Original story on Drinking Cup.

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