In the 17th century, educated and wealthy men would go to coffeehouses to learn about business news, politics, gossip, and literature. Businessmen often negotiated new deals over a cup of coffee, while others debated politics and philosophy, using coffee to inspire them. The 19th-century historian Thomas Macauley argued that in the 17th century, wealthy men defined themselves not by where they lived but by which coffeehouses they frequented.
Standage’s thesis in this chapter is hardly original, and he acknowledges this up front by citing Thomas Macauley. Coffeehouses were important cultural entities, by means of which people defined themselves and explored new ideas. Also, like the Greek symposium, not everyone was allowed in a coffeehouse—only men.
Coffeehouses were public places, except that they excluded women and the poor. Gentlemen and tradesmen (people lower on the social ladder, who didn’t own land), however, were free to discuss intellectual matters with a degree of freedom uncommon elsewhere in their society. Nor were the wealthy afforded more of a voice in coffeehouse conversations because of their power—everyone was given an equal opportunity to speak. Because coffeehouses allowed “everyone” (defined with a narrow spectrum of fairly wealthy men) to pursue their intellectual interests, Standage argues that the coffeehouse was the “Internet” of the Age of Enlightenment.
As with other drinking spaces that Standage discusses, the coffeehouse provided a measure of equality for its patrons, but could only do so by also excluding large sections of the population—women and the poor weren’t allowed inside. The coffeehouse was therefore both elitist and egalitarian—much like Western society at the time. This reinforces Standage’s point that the coffeehouse was a microcosm for Western society (and that coffee itself is a symbol of the Age of Enlightenment).
The first coffeehouse in Western Europe was established at the University of Oxford—a sure sign of the relationship between coffee and intellectual culture. One of the earliest proponents of coffee at Oxford was Christopher Wren, the noted architect, philosopher, and designer of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. Wren spread enthusiasm for coffee to many of his friends, including Edmund Halley (the discoverer of Halley’s Comet) and Sir Isaac Newton.
So far, Standage has spoken of the coffeehouse in the most general terms. That changes in this section when he describes some of the most famous patrons of the English coffeehouses of the 17th century—basically a laundry list of English intellectual giants of the period.
Perhaps the greatest book of the Age of Enlightenment was published because of coffeehouse conversation. Robert Hooke, the noted physicist, was drinking coffee with Halley, Wren, and Newton. Hooke brought up the inverse square law: the mathematical rule that was thought to govern the motion of planets. Newton, inspired by this discussion, decided to publish his book Principia, the foundation of all modern physics. Another key book of the Enlightenment, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations—the Bible of modern capitalism—was also written largely in a coffeehouse.
Standage gives more concrete examples to prove his thesis that coffeehouses fostered great intellectual achievements. Standage’s declaration that the coffeehouse was the “Internet” of its day may sound odd and reductive, but in light of the monumental breakthroughs achieved in coffeehouses, it’s hard to argue that the coffeehouse wasn’t an important medium for spreading information and inspiring new ideas (like the Internet is today).
Standage argues that science and commerce became heavily intertwined in coffeehouses. Many coffeehouses were patronized primarily by explorers and sailors, and sometimes these patrons would hatch plans to launch new expeditions. Coffeehouses also served as makeshift stock markets, where sellers and buyers would meet to discuss trading. People who defaulted on their payments were often banned from the coffeehouses where they’d made a trade—their names were written on a board. In this way, the coffeehouse took on a kind of authority, promising that all those permitted inside would be trustworthy.
The coffeehouse took on a new measure of authority when it became a place for business transactions. Coffeehouse owners were effectively screening their patrons before letting them in—a businessmen who’d lost all of his money wouldn’t be allowed back into a coffeehouse, and would have to look elsewhere for new partners. This is one of the best examples of how drinking spaces function as cultural entities—drinking spaces decide who does and doesn’t belong to a group.
In the mid-1700s, the French philosopher Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire rose to prominence for wittily criticizing the foolishness and hypocrisy of the French aristocracy. Voltaire’s books were banned for their supposedly immoral content, yet Voltaire continued to frequent coffeehouses, spending time with such French luminaries as Rousseau and Montesquieu, whose political writings Voltaire influenced.
The intellectual culture of the coffeehouse in France seems no different than that in England. Standage will clarify some notable differences in the following section, but his major point here is that the French Enlightenment was no less inspired by the coffeehouse than the English Enlightenment was.
French coffeehouses were similar to their English counterparts in many ways: they welcomed wealthy and middle-class men (but not women or the poor), and they encouraged open discourse on a wide variety of topics. Yet French coffeehouses were also policed by government authorities, bent on ensuring that the conversation remained civil and respected the king of France. As the century proceeded, however, the coffeehouse increasingly became a place of political revolution. On July 12, 1789, Camille Desmoulins (supposedly) inaugurated the French Revolution at a coffeehouse. Desmoulins stood on a table and cried, “To arms, citizens!” His cries inspired a rapidly-growing mob that soon engulfed the city of Paris.
It’s interesting—and perhaps not coincidental—that French coffeehouses were more strictly policed than their English counterparts. Based on the fact that the French Revolution began in a French coffeehouse, one would expect exactly the opposite to occur, but perhaps this suggests that there was a kind of build-up of pressure in the French coffeehouse—and in French society—that resulted in a revolution unlike anything seen in England. This bolsters Standage’s thesis that the coffeehouse was a miniature of society.
In contemporary times, coffeehouses remain popular, though they’re far tamer than their ancestors. Coffee is still the drink of conversation and intellectual discourse. Perhaps it’s not entirely a coincidence, Standage suggests, that the American city most associated with coffee, Seattle, is also the seat of many of our largest Internet and software companies—coffee has long been associated with intellectualism, creativity, and innovation.
As in his earlier chapters, Standage makes sure to draw comparisons between the culture of the past and that of the present. Standage clearly doesn’t think it’s just a coincidence that coffee culture has continued to inspire radical new creativity—particularly as the drink itself inspires focus and concentration, two vital qualities for any creative person.