What an amazing read. Some excerpts follow, but please read the whole article if you’re fascinated by this topic as I am.
The Starbucks on Russell Street near Covent Garden piazza is one of London’s many, cloned coffee shops. Can you imagine walking in, sitting next to a stranger and asking for the latest news? Or slamming a recent novel down next to someone’s coffee and asking for their opinion before delivering yours? It’s not the done thing.
But 300 years ago, precisely this kind of behaviour was encouraged in thousands of coffeehouses all over London. In 1712, the Starbucks site was occupied by Button’s coffeehouse. Inside, poets, playwrights, journalists and members of the public gathered around long wooden tables drinking, thinking, writing and discussing literature into the night. Nailed to the wall, near where the Starbucks community notice board now stands, was the white marble head of a lion with wide-open jaws. The public was invited to feed it with letters, limericks and stories; the best of the lion’s digest were published in a weekly edition of Joseph Addison’s Guardian newspaper, entitled ‘the roarings of the lion’.
Early coffeehouses were not clones of each other; many had their own distinct character. The walls of Don Saltero’s Chelsea coffeehouse were adorned with exotic taxidermy, a talking point for local gentlemen scientists; at Lunt’s in Clerkenwell Green, patrons could sip coffee, have a haircut and enjoy a fiery lecture on the abolition of slavery given by its barber-proprietor; at Moll King’s, a near neighbour of Button’s in Covent Garden, libertines could sober up after a long night of drinking and browse a directory of prostitutes, before being led to the requisite brothel on nearby Bow Street. There was even a floating coffeehouse, the Folly of the Thames, moored outside Somerset House, where jittery dancers performed waltzes and jigs late into the night.
Conversation was the lifeblood of coffeehouses. From coffeehouses all over London, Samuel Pepys recorded fantastical tales and metaphysical discussions — of voyages “across the high hills in Asia above the clouds” and the futility of distinguishing between a waking and a dreaming state. Listening and talking to strangers — sometimes for hours on end — was a founding principle of coffeehouses yet one that seems most alien to us today.
Coffeehouses brought people and ideas together; they inspired brilliant ideas and discoveries that would make Britain the envy of the world. The first stocks and shares were traded in Jonathan’s coffeehouse by the Royal Exchange (now a private members’ club); merchants, ship-captains, cartographers, and stockbrokers coalesced into Britain’s insurance industry at Lloyd’s on Lombard Street (now a Sainsbury’s); and the coffeehouses surrounding the Royal Society galvanized scientific breakthroughs. Isaac Newton once dissected a dolphin on the table of the Grecian Coffeehouse.
Surely more lively and inspiring than your average local Starbucks crowded with people staring at their laptops, iPhones and iPads.