Coffee, the sober drink, the mighty nourishment of the brain, which unlike other spirits, heightens purity and lucidity; coffee, which clears the clouds of the imagination and their gloomy weight; which illuminates the reality of things suddenly with the flash of truth.
– Jules Michelet, French historian (1798-1874)

Coffee’s roots reach to Yemen, in the Middle East, where it was used by the mystical Sufis to stave off sleep during their all-night religious rituals of dancing and chanting. Embraced by many devout Muslims as an alternative to alcohol, coffee-drinking eventually spread throughout the Middle East. Muslim clerics remained ambivalent about the religious status of coffee, but despite their many attempts to close down coffee houses in places like Mecca and Cairo, coffee houses quickly proliferated, and by the early seventeenth century, they were becoming respectable places of leisure for men to be seen, meet, and enjoy a game of chess or backgammon.

Coffee was introduced in Europe in the early seventeenth century, around the same time that it became popular in the Middle East. It was brought in by the European travelers returning from their exotic voyages. Like in the Middle East, the introduction of coffee in Europe was not without controversy. Many Christians considered it an unholy drink, as opposed to wine, the holy drink symbolizing Christ’s blood. As a result of the controversy, in 1605, Pope Clement VIII was asked to declare the Catholic Church’s official stand on coffee. The story goes that after tasting it, the Pope was so enthralled by its savor and aroma that he declared the drink permissible for Christians.

Before the introduction of coffee, due to the unsanitary state of their drinking water, most Europeans began their day with a glass of wine or beer.Coffee was thus advertised as an alternative to alcohol, a beverage that enhanced energy, clarity and sharpness of mind instead of leaving the drinker lethargic and inebriated from the early morning like wine and beer customarily did. Coffee lovers claimed that the popular drink led to the general sobering up of Western Europe (some even credited it with bolstering the European Enlightenment). In 1660, one observer noted that:  “This coffee drink hath caused a greater sobriety among the Nations. Whereas formerly Apprentices and clerks with others used to take a morning draught of Ale, Beer or Wine, which, by the dizziness they cause in the Brain, made many unfit for business, they use now to play the Good-fellows in this wakeful and civil drink.”

In England, the first coffee houses opened during the puritanical rule of Oliver Cromwell as an alternative to taverns. The first such cofee houses opened during the puritanical rule of Oliver Cromwell as an alternative to taverns. The first such establishment was opened in London in 1652 by Pasqua Rose, the Armenian servant of an English merchant, Daniel Edwards, who brought the drink home from a trip to the Middle East. To advertise their venue, Rose and Edwards produced a pamphlet, The Vertue of the Coffee Drink extolling the many merits of the drink. In 1658, the political debates surrounding the future of England that ensued after Cromwell’s death, moved to the coffee houses, which by then, had become popular meeting places of traveling merchants gathering there to discuss their daily business affairs. By appealing to both puritans and the emerging merchant class, the coffee houses ideally reflected the atmosphere of mid-century London, quickly growing in popularity. By 1663, there were eighty-three coffee houses in the city, and by the end of the century, there were hundreds of them.

Not everyone, however, was a coffee enthusiast. Some English medical doctors believed that coffee “induced palsies, impotence and leanness.” One women’s group published The Women’s Petition Against Coffee, representing to public consideration the grand inconveniences accruing to their sex from the excessive use of the drying and enfeebling Liquor. The group claimed that extravagant coffee drinking made their husbands “as unfruitful as the deserts, from where that unhappy berry is said to be brought.” Since men spent all of their leisure time in coffee houses where women were not allowed, the group argued, “the whole race was in danger of extinction.”

Likewise, many moralists opposed coffee houses on the grounds that they promoted time-wasting, gossip and general slothfulness. The attacks provoked a backlash and the publication of numerous pamphlets in defense of the drink and the coffee house lifestyle. In Defense of Coffee (1674) and Coffee Houses Vindicated (1675) are two such examples of the pro-coffee publications. In eighteenth-century London, the coffee house culture customarily blended with mercantile culture, as some of the better-known coffee houses began organizing into highly systematized social structures that served specific business interests of stockbrokers, traders and merchants, who would often make arrangements with the coffee house owners for exclusive use of the coffee house space for business meetings, auctions and exchanges. Ultimately, this model was transferred to America, where coffee houses played an essential role in the institutionalization of financial markets.

Image 1: Coffee house in the Ottoman Empire.
Image 2: A coffee house in seventeenth-century London.
Image 3: A coffee house in seventeenth-century London.
Image 4: Edouard Manet, A Café Interior (1869).
Image 5: “Discussing the War in a Paris Café,” The Illustrated London News (17 September 1870).
Image 6: The Cafés of the Paris Exhibition: The American Café (1886).

Images courtesy of Google, the Yale Beinecke Library and the Harvard Via Collection.

Originally posted at ArtsEmerson Blog (3/16/12).