Thursday, November 03, 2005

Some thoughts on coffee houses

The first English coffee house began in Oxford in the 1650s. In the following two decades they spread to London, and by 1663 more than 82 had been set up. They served their customers chocolate, wine, brandy and punch as well as coffee. They had benches and tables and some had booths (snugs). Coffee houses were open to all ranks and were places of free expression, which did not endear them to the Crown. They usurped the prerogative of the prince by debating politics, religion and literature. When Danby tried to close them in 1675 there was a public outcry. The government performed a U-turn and a face-saving formula was devised. The proprietors promised ‘to be wonderful good for the future and to take care to prevent treasonable talk in their houses.’

The German sociologist, Jürgen Habermas saw coffee houses as part of an emerging public sphere which began in England in the late seventeenth century and provided a space in which private citizens could take a public role. His influential book was translated into English in 1989 under the title of The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and it has had a huge influence on historians of the period.