Coffeehouse Consumerism (Excerpt)

William Dunning

The coffeehouse became an establishment of daily life in London during the late 17th century. Coffeehouses served as a nexus of individuals, providing discourse, productivity, and business exchange above the warm brim of a cup. Ideas were debated regularly among the patrons of coffeehouses, as their words cut the through the steam of their drink, evaporating the expectations of social interaction that existed in decades past, while brewing a new age of information and commerce. Lawrence Klein describes its establishment by stating, “In subsequent decades, the coffeehouse evolved from a novelty into an essential institution of urban life in England, at least for males of the upper and middling parts of urban society.”1 In prior centuries, establishments such as the tavern, alehouse, and inn reigned as the most notable places of social interaction. These establishments promoted drunkenness and produced a lack of reason and intellect among its subscribers. On the contrary, coffeehouses became a place of valuable social and intellectual interaction. Coffeehouse owners fueled the fire of conversation not only with their strong coffee drink, but provided customers with pamphlets, books, and articles to read and consider. In 1699, Houghton wrote the following statement regarding the impact of coffee in England.

“Furthermore, Coffee has greatly increased the Trade of Tobacco and Pipes, Earthen dishes, Tin wares, News-Papers, Coals, Candles, Sugar, Tea, Chocolate and what not? Coffee-house makes all sorts of People sociable, they improve Arts, and Merchandize, and all other Knowledge and a worthy member of this Society (now departed) has thought that Coffee-houses have improved useful knowledge very much.”2

To Houghton, coffeehouses improved society through the culture which it created. Houghton describes an increase in economic goods as a result of coffee, and specifically mentions knowledge as a product of English coffeehouses. Conclusively, he reinforces the relationship of the coffeehouse and commerce, and the development of coffeehouse philosophies as a product of the coffeehouse culture. With the development of the coffeehouse near sites of commercial trade, commerce inevitably made its way inside the coffeehouse and imprinted a lasting legacy.

Beginning in 1680, Jonathan’s Coffeehouse became a staple in coffeehouse culture. Cesar de Saussure wrote, in his personal letters, regarding the culture of coffeehouses, “Some coffee-houses are a resort for learned scholars and for wits, others are the resort of dandies or of politicians, or again of professional newsmongers; and many others are temples of Venus.”3 Commercial traders and townspeople flocked to Jonathan’s Coffeehouse, as it existed at the entrance of St. Michael’s Alley in Cornhill, or what some referred to as Exchange Alley.

By 1698, Jonathan’s operated as a center for posting stock prices in addition to a coffeehouse. Since the coffeehouse’s members consisted of mostly commercially interested customers, it became the central location for the prices of commodities. Jonathan’s became the future home of the London Stock Exchange. According to their archives, the London Stock Exchange claims, “It is the earliest evidence of organized trading in marketable securities in London.”4 That same year, stock dealers in the Royal Exchange became expelled due to rowdy behavior, and began dealing in the streets, before finally filling the coffeehouses of Exchange Alley, particularly Jonathan’s. The significance of Jonathan’s, in relation to consumerism, resides in the relationship between the coffeehouse and commerce, thus producing a culture of consumerism among its frequent visitors. The coffeehouse became directly tied to the very definition of consumerism, in that the individual felt compelled to consume a product or good, or exchange monetary value while in the coffeehouse. Whether that product came in the form of the coffee itself, stocks, goods, or services, a consumer mindset formed within the coffeehouse culture, nonetheless.

Another example of the coffeehouse creating a culture of consumerism existed within Lloyd’s Coffeehouse. Edward Lloyd first opened the coffeehouse in 1686 on Tower Street in London. The establishment provided a place for sailors to commune, receive news about trade from other sailors, and so Lloyd took advantage of the commercial talk that took place in his coffeehouse. Lloyd began keeping tabs on all the news of imports and exports to provide his customers with reliable information. In 1691, Lloyd relocated to Lombard street, which was adjacent to Exchange Alley. This move brought him even closer to the commerce of London. Upon success of sharing shipping news to sailors, Lloyd installed a speaking podium in the coffeehouse and set up a place where he and others could address the crowd of coffee-drinking sailors regarding important news. As Lloyd’s grew, he began venturing past simply selling coffee and providing news, to selling insurance to sailors. The insurance covered the sailor’s goods traded and protected them against disaster. Lloyd’s coffeehouse became known as Lloyd’s of London and Lloyd’s Register, which continue to sell insurance and financial recording keeping services in the present day.

Edward Lloyd created a consumer culture within his establishment centered around commerce. The experience of Lloyd’s provided men with a sense of knowledge and business importance. Going into his coffeehouse did not merely amount to sipping a cup of coffee, but rather learning important news, and investing in commercial affairs. Later, in 1734, Lloyd’s News provided readers with a weekly newspaper that spread throughout London. Much like modern businesses, such as Starbucks, Lloyd created a consumer experience for his customers, and coffee was simply a catalyst for such an experience.

From a historical viewpoint, modern consumerism and consumer practices have origins in seventeenth and eighteenth century English coffeehouses. Such establishments as Jonathan’s and Lloyds, serve as physical representations of cultural diffusion at its finest. The coffeehouse created a new public sphere for people to frequent. Not only did the coffeehouse create a new space for the individual, but also for commerce. The coffeehouse became more than a leisure zone, but rather a place of commercial interaction. Through a historical lens, one sees the rise of consumerism with the coffeehouse as an important catalyst. One of the most well-known coffeehouse philosophers, Voltaire, remarked, “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.” The next time you find yourself in a business such as Starbucks or local coffee shop, heed the words of Voltaire and think for yourself of the foundations laid before the product in sight.

1. Klein, Lawrence E. “Coffeehouse Civility, 1660-1714: An Aspect of Post-Courtly Culture in England.” Huntington Library Quarterly 59, no. 1 (1996): 31. doi:10.2307/3817904
2. John Houghton, “A Discourse of Coffee, Read at a Meeting of the Royal Society, by Mr. John Houghton, F. R. S.” Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775) 21 (1699): 311-17.
3. Cesar de Saussure, “A Foreign View of England in the Reigns of George I & George II,” (London, John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1705; reprint 1902)
4. “Our History,” London Stock Exchange – Our history, Accessed November 26, 2019.

Author’s Reflection

As a History major and aspiring historian, my interests reside in uncovering the extensive web of events or causes that have produced modern day practices, expectations, philosophies, and circumstances. With my focus primarily on economic history, modern consumerism and its origins became increasingly more intriguing to me during my studies at Southern Illinois University. Through my research, I traced many consumer characteristics of the modern day back to 17th century London, and found the coffeehouse as an unexpected nexus in which commerce was revolutionized. In addition to commerce, as outlined in my full research project, I researched and discussed the coffeehouse as a birthplace for many modern philosophies and enlightenment era principles.

My research also extends to the role of coffeehouse consumerism in the American colonies and its contributions to early-modern capitalism in the United States.

My research projects have been such a joy for me to develop because they brought newfound knowledge to the foundation that upholds much of modern economics and consumer culture. Reading through centuries-old pamphlets or broadsides and finding information to further the arguments of my papers brought me excitement, as if I had solved the riddles of an age old scavenger hunt. As I began to uncover information through a variety of primary sources, my modern, preconceived ideas of both the coffeehouse and early-modern consumerism began to change. The challenge of researching and writing is to ensure that you do not simply use excerpts of documents to prove the point you wish to make, but rather, to tell the story that the sources are providing. Throughout this process, I had to change points that I thought I would make when the historical material told me otherwise. I like to think of history as a spotlight, attempting to shine light on massive mountain ranges of past events that are hidden by darkness. While we can only see what the spotlight shows us, it is my job as a historian to make the spotlight bigger, so that we may understand the intricacies of the past that surround the history we already know.