Why do we network over coffee?

Café Coho Brighton . Photo Katie Vandyck

Café Coho Brighton. Photo Katie Vandyck


We love cafés and we love coffee

A coffee shop, or café in 2018, is usually a mixture of those enjoying the company of close friends, or the intense and isolating experience of laptop plus earphones, engaging in the kinds of industry it’s easier to get to grips with away from one’s usual environment; no washing up to be done, no beguiling social media to interact with, a neutral space to concentrate on creativity, or spreadsheets, or emails

When Pasqua Rosee opened his coffee shop (stall) in Cornhill, London in 1652 he was not to know that the introduction of this readily available, socially acceptable, highly stimulating beverage would introduce a whole new way for 17th Century citizens to interact with one another.

Up until the opening up, and rapid growth of, coffee shops, the social lives of the  population would have been differentiated by the class they were born into. The meeting places of the aristocracy and burgeoning middle classes would have been in their homes or workplaces. Working men would have met in taverns, at market, through sport or at the kind of compelling public events that drew and entertained the masses from fairs, to theatre and public punishment of all kinds.

Those smoky, dark, paper-strewn coffee houses of the early 18th Century were open to all for the price of a penny and as such were seen as a great leveller. A man (there were no women in attendance except for the Mistress of the house who presided over the coffee urn and presumably collected the twelve penny fine meted out to those customers failing to adhere to the house rules requiring polite discourse) could spend an hour, a morning, a whole day in the company of those who shared his interests or were in the same business as he.

Penny Universities

The historian Aytoun Ellis was first to coin the term Penny Universities referring to the price of entry and access customers would have to a world of knowledge acquired through contact with those who habitually used coffee houses to meet and talk over issues of the day. Each coffee house had a distinct identity and patrons to match.

Harrington's Rota Club was the first to offer its own particular intellectual experience. Later known as The Turk’s Head, this coffee house became a centre of discussion and meeting point of debate offering one-penny access to anyone interested in “matters of politics and philosophy.”

The Bedford Coffee House in Covent Garden attracted the theatre crowd, an 18th century commentator remarked

"This Coffee-house is every night crowded with men of parts. Almost every one you meet is a polite scholar and a wit. Jokes and bon-mots are echoed from box to box: every branch of literature is critically examined, and the merit of every production of the press, or performance of the theatres, weighed and determined."

Take out the word “theatre” and this review could apply to many of the coffee houses around this time.

The Grecian attracted the custom of men of science, you may well have been able to listen, and talk to, Sir Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley (both of whom are said to have been among a group of scientist dissecting a dolphin, presumably upon a coffee house table). 

The Birth of City Institutions

Lloyds of London had its beginning in Lloyd’s Coffee House. Opened by Edward Lloyd, Lloyd's Coffee House became a centre for merchants and for those with interests in the seafaring trade. It offered news and information about local and international shipping and eventually Lloyd was to earn more from his trade newspaper than the coffee he sold in his shop.  The Stock Exchange started life in Jonathan’s Coffee House, Sothebys and Christies both began life in coffees houses that began to be known for their auctions.

What's New??

The nature of conversation and the appetite for The New is summed up by contemporary satirist William Hazlitt;

"It is strange that people should take so much interest at one time in what they so soon forget; - the truth is, they feel no interest in it at any time, but it does for something to talk about. Their ideas are served up to them, like their bill of fare, for the day; and the whole creation, history, war, politics, morals, poetry, metaphysics, is to them like a file of antedated newspapers, of no use, not even for reference, except the one which lies on the table!"

A rapacious appetite for news, for argument, for something different, has been credited with the rise of social consciousness and the creation of political thinking whose structure and theories would be the foundation of change in political policy in the 18th Century and beyond. The concentration of intellect created by the nature of its gatherings may well have been why coffee houses were seen as a threat to the establishment. In 1675 Charles II threatened to pass legislation to have them closed down. A public outcry meant this never happened

He may have had good reason to fear the potency of political gatherings in various coffee houses. The 1773 Boston Tea Party, the spark that lit the flame of the American War of Independence, was planned in the Green Dragon coffee house in Boston.

The Drink

Although it was possible to spend an entire day in a coffee house for the payment of the penny entrance fee and make one dish of coffee last the time, many customers must have drunk considerably more than that.  One can only imagine the effect of those quantities of caffeine on the brains and tongues of those enjoying the drink and the impact that would have had the liveliness, reach, speed and possibly increasingly bad temper at which conversation moved and swirled around them.


Coffee today

This ever more popular beverage retains its appeal today. Aside from overindulgence which can lead to palpitations and hyperactivity it is hard to find a bad word said about coffee. There are numerous scientific studies that show that it is in fact beneficial to health.

But it's not just a substance that can lower your chance of liver or colon cancer, act as a minor anti-depressant and speed up the cognitive processes, having a chat over coffee when a feeling of well being and optimal energy abounds, is extremely good for productive social networking.

Katie Vandyck