The History of Coffeehouses

English Coffeehouses

During the 17th century, a trio of new and exotic substances appeared in Europe: tea, coffee, and chocolate. While alcohol and taverns had a long association, these new substances spawned an entirely new establishment: the coffeehouse. The first coffeehouse in England opened in 1650, and by 1700 they were commonplace.

These establishments quickly took on a character distinct from taverns. Taverns, as required by law, provided food, drink, and lodging; while individual taverns varied greatly, they were generally known as centers for enthusiastic drinking and gambling. Coffeehouses, on the other hand, specialized in new and exotic beverages that were stimulants, not intoxicants. Coffeehouses, at least initially, prohibited gambling and the consumption of alcohol and as a result gained the reputation of being sober, genteel places quite unlike other public houses.

Coffeehouses were places were men from all but the very lowest rank of society met, mingled, conducted business, and exchanged information and opinions. Coffeehouses in 17th and 18th-century England were different from taverns in that they catered to an exclusively male clientele. As necessary (when traveling, for example), respectable women could make use of a tavern's facilities. However, they would never have patronized a coffeehouse, although women occasionally owned or worked in such establishments. Any man with a penny for admission was welcomed and could interact with his fellows in the coffeehouse without regard to rank or privilege. Some establishments posted rules of behavior stipulating that all customers were deemed equal and prohibiting gambling, swearing, quarrelling, and mourning over lost love. Because of the free exchange of ideas and opinions (and the small admission charge), London coffeehouses became known as “Penny Universities.”

Especially in large cities, the clientele of some coffeehouses became specialized. One coffeehouse, operated by an Edward Lloyd, was so popular with shippers, captains, and maritime insurers that Lloyd posted the arrival and departures of ships from London docks. Long after Lloyd's death, the underwriters who remained steady customers of the establishment he had begun formed the insurance firm still known today as Lloyd's of London. Other coffeehouses attracted politicians, clergymen, artists, stockbrokers, and so on. The London stock exchanged operated for 73 years out of Jonathon's and Garraway's coffeehouses. Businessmen and doctors kept office hours in their favorite watering hole; the writer Jonathan Swift received his letters at the St. James Coffeehouse, and The Tatler, a London newspaper, gave the Grecian Coffeehouse as its address. Overall, coffeehouses were such important institutions to London society that one did not inquire where a fellow lived but rather what coffeehouse he frequented.

Coffeehouses in Eighteenth-Century Virginia

Virginians modeled their coffeehouses after the popular London establishments. Throughout the eighteenth century, Virginians were proud to be English, and English fashions began in London; consequently, coffeehouses would be fashionable in Virginia. Naturally, differences were apparent between the establishments of London and of Williamsburg.

Williamsburg, although important as the capital of the wealthy and populous colony of Virginia, could not support the variety of specialized coffeehouses that thrived in London. In 1775 Williamsburg's population amounted to about 2,000 (over half of whom were enslaved African Americans), whereas the inhabitants of London numbered 675,000. Historical evidence suggests that there was only ever a single coffeehouse in Williamsburg although its proprietors and locations changed during the course of the eighteenth century. The earliest reference to a coffeehouse in Williamsburg dates to 1709, when William Byrd II mentioned one located at the east end of Duke of Gloucester Street near the Capitol. He went to the coffeehouse for drinks, meals, meetings, the latest newspapers, and card games. Such activities show the close resemblance to coffeehouses in London. Unfortunately, we know neither the exact location nor the proprietor's name, but clearly the customers at this Williamsburg coffeehouse were mostly burgesses, councilors, and others who worked at the Capitol.

By the 1740s another coffeehouse was in operation in Williamsburg, again noted in the diary of William Byrd II. In 1751 the tenant at what we now know as Shields Tavern called his business the English Coffee House. By the 1760s the coffeehouse was near the Capitol and the part of town called the Exchange, where merchants met to set prices of tobacco and to conduct their business. In the fall of 1765, a local protest of the Stamp Act took place just in front of this coffeehouse, where the governor and his council were taking their ease on the porch. By June 1767 Richard Charlton announced in the Virginia Gazette that he was changing the coffeehouse into a tavern. We have no evidence of any coffeehouses in Williamsburg after Charlton's; with the move of the capital to Richmond in 1780, the town was probably unable to support such establishments.