02 April 2008

Social Movements: The Coffee House Revolutions

By Eliza Tucker

I'm the first to admit it: I'm a coffee devotee. While coffee culture today is considered a status symbol--a sort of beverage bling--by critics, the coffee-house of eras past meant something entirely different.

In 1457, the first coffee-house opened in Constantinople (Istanbul), followed by two more in 1555 after approval by the Sultan--even though the ulema (scholars with specialized knowledge of Islamic law and theology) compared coffee to hard spirits. With the opening of these coffee-houses, the clientele was firmly established. In the 17th century, the Ottoman historian İbrahim Peçevi chronicled the coffee culture:

"These were enlightened gentlemen who are lively and addicted to amusement. They could gather as groups of twenty or thirty in each coffeehouse. Some of them reading books, discussing rules of good manners, as others were playing chess or backgammon. Some brought their newest poems or discussed art." (Peçevi, para.)
Most of these patrons were Kalemiyye (the Sultan's scribes) and itinerate teachers at the medrese--the professional social theoreticians of the time. As shops spread across the Ottoman empire, they became crowded, standing-room only venues for interaction and argument.

Around 1600, coffee entered Europe via Venice, and introduced to the New World by Captain John Smith, although some Canadian historians trace coffee's history in their country as being earlier than 1607. The first Europeans to commercially grow coffee were the Dutch, in their colonies in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), on the Island Java, in Indonesia, and then in South America.

By 1675, London coffee-houses gained political stature as they became lecterns in which every party and faction could preach. Coffee-houses became public schools for adults, even offering discourses on sciences and astronomy. The London coffee-house was open to all gentlemen, without regard to status or wealth. This rare offering proved to be as addictive to some men as the caffeine they consumed, riling the wives they neglected into starting an anti-coffee movement and a 1674 short work called The Women's Petition Against Coffee.

In the early 1700s, Louis XIV managed to get a single coffee tree from the Dutch, and the French guarded their King's coffee supply diligently. Americans began to grow their own coffee shortly thereafter, and by the mid-1700s, the coffeehouse culture spread through Europe. By the 1760s, more than 2,000 caffés had taken root in Venice alone.

In the early 1800s, Vienna developed a slightly more subtle coffee culture. As if returning to its roots, the scribes of the day gathered in kaffeehauses and were invited to stay all day, into the night. This leisurely approach to coffee was solidified by the tradition of headwaiter presenting a cup of coffee with a spoon balanced carefully over it, signifying an invitation to stay as long as the customer liked.

Coffee-houses grew in America until the turn of the twentieth century, when the old, moralistic Victorian class identified cafes with dangerous revolutionaries. Anarchism, communism, free love and other dangerous ideas were equated to café culture. The Great Depression saw coffee as an affordable staple--many families resorted to a dinner of coffee on bread--which only bolstered America's addiction to the drink. Rationing during World War II made coffee once again a luxury, but during the country's recovery in the 1950s and 1960s, coffee houses became a haven for beatniks and wanna-be revolutionaries once more.