Saturday, April 14, 2012

The History of Coffee Houses in England

Ellis, Aytoun. The Penny Universities: A History of Coffee Houses. London: Secker & Warburg, 1956. 

The coffee houses of England served multiple purposes, and this book is written to recognize their contributions and to observe three hundred years of coffee house history. Although written in many ways like a catalog, which makes progress through its pages a bit tedious, the book's author, Ellis, devotes each chapter to a specific aspect of the coffee house. Much of the history is documented although some of it is based on historical legend. From the origins of the first intoxicating sip of coffee in England, the coffee houses served as an early alternative to too much beer--the drink of choice that was destroying the health and well being of many in England. In its early days, the coffee house was open to (primarily) men from all walks of life--the poor mingling with the rich. Coffee Houses served as a safe haven for political discussion, became centers for the exchange of ideas and for civil debate--Dryden held court at a coffee house were the homes for the earliest journals--Addison and Steele were among those who brought their publications to life through coffee house debate (also see Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere on the role of coffee houses and the rise of the early journal and development of cultural critique). Alcohol slowly found its way back into the coffee shop as did the charlatan in the form of quacks and highway men, but in our current times, the coffee house is a solid fixture as a community space conducive to both those seeking solitude and those preferring society.

If you have any doubt about the important cultural role of the coffee shop, find this book in a library near you (I came across this browsing the DA's at Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania).

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