English coffeehouses in the 17th and 18th centuries  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Historians define English coffeehouses as public social houses during the 17th and 18th centuries, in which patrons would assemble for conversation and social interaction, while taking part in newly emerging coffee consumption habits for the time. Travellers introduced coffee as a beverage to England during the mid-17th century. Within English coffeehouses, patrons ordered and consumed the new drink. Prior to its popularisation, experimentalists used coffee for its medicinal properties. Coffeehouse proprietors served other modern beverages, such as tea and chocolate, as well.

For the price of a penny, customers purchased a cup of coffee and admission to a coffeehouse, where men engaged in conversation. Topics discussed within the coffeehouses included politics and political scandals, daily gossip, fashion, current events, and debates surrounding philosophy and the natural sciences. Historians often associate English coffeehouses, during the 17th and 18th centuries, to the intellectual and cultural history of the Age of Enlightenment.

Throughout their conception, coffeehouses acted as an alternate sphere for intellectual thought, supplementary to the university. Also having a political significance, political groups frequently used English coffeehouses as meeting places. Historians agree that a diverse demographic of customers frequented English coffeehouses. Relative equality was believed to have existed among patrons of coffeehouses despite station, as one could participate in conversation regardless of class, rank, or political leaning. Socially similar to English alehouses or inns, the historian Brian Cowan describes English coffeehouses as "places where people gathered to drink coffee, learn the news of the day, and perhaps to meet with other local residents and discuss matters of mutual concern." However, the absence of alcohol created an atmosphere in which one could engage in sober conversation.

English coffeehouses also implemented a strict set of rules. According to the first posted "Rules and Orders of the Coffee House" illustrated and printed in 1674 as a coffee broadside, equality was supposed to have prevailed amongst all men in these establishments, and "no man of any station need give his place to a finer man". If one should swear, they would have to forfeit a twelve-pence. If a quarrel broke out, the instigator would have to purchase the offended a cup of coffee. The topic of "sacred things" was barred from coffeehouses, and rules existed against speaking poorly of the state as well as religious scriptures. The rules forbade games of chance, such as cards and dice, as well.

While most English coffeehouses in the 17th and 18th centuries conformed to this set of rules and encouraged these values and characteristics, the diversity of social practises within summarises the character of the English coffeehouse. This article will focus on the diversity of coffeehouse character in 17th and 18th century England.

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