Stories from History: Coffee House Cradles of Civilization

That humble aspect of civilization: the coffee house. First created in the Ottoman Empire before being exported to Western Europe, it is bizarre to try to imagine a world without them.  Even now they’re something special – whenever I am chased out of my home by boredom or the noise of construction, I tend to go to a coffee shop. That change from “house” to “shop” reflects a part of the change, and it is the rare occasion that you can still find a good coffee house.

In this age of the internet, it is so easy to forget the one aspect of society that has becomeubiquitous. In the golden age of the coffee house, that was the place that you would go to learn about the news of the day. Perhaps we should think of it almost like Reddit or Twitter – half of it is policital commentary from people who aren’t experts, half of it is real news, and half of it is rumours and gibberish, and no one cares that this is too many halves. There’s something more complicated that, perhaps because there were so many barriers to entry for even entering those places. Barriers that we’ve done away with in the great democratization.

When they first arrived in Britain, they replaced many of the old ale-houses and public-houses that existed before them. They often looked exactly like them, and many changed from one to the other. The difference wasn’t in geography then, but rather in what was served. Where they once had served flat beer and warm gin, the transition was made to coffee. Served hot and piping, each dark drink provided hints of promise and of the then exotic. Many of these coffee houses were little more than the front rooms of a house that the family who ran it lived within. Coffee and food was prepared in a kitchen behind it.

Their coffee was much weaker than ours is today, and it was prepared most like what is now called the Turkish method with grounds floating in the water as it was kept warm near the hearth. Coffee was not the only attraction though: they were also a place where you could buy and enjoy tea, chocolate, and tobacco. This was a realization of the goods that could be found around the world, and the British were keen to enjoy the stimulatns that were on offer. Where once they would have made themselves silly on alcohol, they now woke themselves up and were firing on all cylinders. The link between news and coffee houses was invented as an early form of marketing and branding.

Being small rooms at the front of a house the various men and women, though in all honestly it was most often men, were in cramped situations. This made conversations flooding over each other common, and left everyone in a sort of communal conversation. Newspapers would be passed around, and occasionally someone would be able to secure the floor and make a speech. It was also the kind of place where you would meet a friend, unable to organize in more specific measures as we can now with phones, or to conduct business. Artists and writers quickly realized the value to these places, and help transform them into “penny universities”.

From England this new brand of coffee house spread out across Europe. Within a short period of time, they had popped up across France and Germany and then even further abroad. This was the kind of place that philosophers and others would begin to meet. Without coffee houses, so many different famous meetings would never have happened.

Voltaire and Rousseau both frequented a French coffee house that still stands to this day, and much later there was a period when Marx, Stalin and others were going to the same coffee house in Germany.

Coffee drinking spread so virulently that when beer consumption decreased, Frederick the Great issued an edict that banned coffee drinking, and instead insisting that they drink beer instead. Perhaps we all have something to thank for the stubborn citizens who ignored this edict and drank muckefuck instead: a drink they invented to try to ape coffee instead of going back to being bloated and tired from drinking beer all day.

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