How did the coffeehouses shape the Western world?

There is no other beverage in history of the humankind that helped create the world we live in today than coffee. Since its discovery about a thousand years ago, and since the first known coffeehouse was opened in Constantinople almost 500 years ago, coffee has played a crucial role in changing the dynamics of the societies and the lives of the people in the Western world.

When two immigrants from Syria, named Shems and Hakem opened their coffeehouse in the busy Taht’ul Kale district of Constantinople in 1554, they probably did not expect that in the following centuries their idea would spread westwards and trigger some of the most important events and help create some of the most prominent institutions of the human history.

It didn’t take long for the Western Europeans to discover the new social revolution going on in the Ottoman lands. They had already been in close contact with the Sultan’s empire, not only through the never ending wars, but there was also an intense diplomatic and commercial traffic between the two competing civilizations.  Countless European merchants were visiting or even living in the major trade centers, such as Constantinople, Smyrna, Aleppo and Cairo, of the Levantine lands of the empire. And a similar trend was existent among the Ottoman merchants. The citizens of the empire whether they were of Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Jew or Arab origin were in constant connection with the trade hubs of Europe such as Venice, Marseilles, London and Amsterdam.

During these interactions, it was not only the silks, spices, gems and carpets of the east versus the tin, wool and gunpowder of the west that were exchanged. The merchants of the west also took some of the cultural habits of their counterparts in the east. Coffee and coffeehouses were the two most precious customs they imported.

Coffee first made its way to the private corners of the European merchants’ lives. Already in the 16th century, the European merchants were consuming coffee in their offices and homes. Thanks to their ability to access coffee beans through trade, they were able to keep their personal stocks sufficient most of the time.

After almost 100 years of the opening of the first coffeehouse in Constantinople, the merchants of the Christian world were ready to take the next step in their own soil. Two prominent Londoners, Thomas Hodges and Daniel Edwards who had made their fortunes through trading with the Levant, decided to share their personal passions for coffee with the public, and appointed their loyal and talented servant Pasqua Rosee to open the very first coffeehouse of the Western Europe in London, in 1652.

Before coming to London with his boss Richard Edwards, Pasqua Rosee, who was of Greek origin, had lived in Smyrna for a long time. He could speak several languages as well as Turkish and of course, he knew how to cook coffee best in the Turkish style.

Rosee’s little stall, The Turk’s Head, which was next to the St. Michael’s church of London’s busy Cornhill district, was a hit in a short time. For the first time the Englishmen had a beverage that they could enjoy with the others without numbing their minds. On the contrary, the new beverage made them stay awake, think more clearly, work more efficiently and behave like true gentlemen. Everybody was happy. Well, almost…

It didn’t take the society of taverns long to notice the new kid on the block. Coffeehouses were not liable to any of the existing regulations, primarily the ones related to the sales and consumption of alcoholic beverages in public places, yet they were attracting more and more of their taverns’ clientele every day. Since the tavern owners did not have any palpable argument against this new kind of competitor, they reported the new coffeehouse to the officials on the grounds of Rosee’s citizenship. As an immigrant, Rosee was not allowed to own or run a retail business in London.

By that time, Hodges and Edwards had become well aware of the potential of the new business. Surely, they wouldn’t retreat without a fight. Soon, they embedded another of their close acquaintances to work alongside Rosee into the business. Christopher Bowman was a true Englishman and he had all the necessary clearances to run the coffeehouse.

Despite having a partner, Pasqua Rosee was the symbol of the first coffeehouse in London. Soon the establishment moved to a brick and mortar building which happened to be in the same busy alley. Rosee and Bowman used Rosee’s image in Levantine outfits on their seals. They distributed pamphlets, telling the health benefits of the new beverage. The popularity of the coffee and the coffeehouse grew fast, many others were opened nearby in the following years.

Pasqua Rosee, however, decided to leave London, probably due to the disappointment for the treatment he had received from the society. We do not know exactly what he did next, some say that he moved to Hague and there opened Holland’s first coffeehouse.

The coffeehouses proliferated fast in the United Kingdom. In addition to several new coffeehouses in the Cornhill area, some were also opened in Oxford in the same decade. Coffeehouses became the meeting points of the merchants, artists, politicians, people from all walks of life, except, women.

Like in the Ottoman society, women were not allowed to the coffeehouses in London. There were similar exceptions though. Just like the Ottoman coffeehouses, who used young and beautiful boys to lure customers, the London coffeehouses usually employed beautiful women behind the counter to boost the attractiveness of their venues.

Soon each coffeehouse of London began to differentiate itself from the competition with its clientele. While some coffeehouses were popular among merchants, others were frequented by other professions. People were no longer known with their home addresses, the coffeehouse which they frequented were their new points of contact. The coffeehouses added new services to their menu, like accepting mails and parcels for their customers. They also began to keep newspapers, magazines, according to their customers’ preferences. Coffeehouses became more than coffeehouses. They were the places where people from different hierarchies of the society could mingle with each other without any prejudice or restriction and converse. As long as they paid 1 penny for a cup of coffee, they had unlimited access to the latest news and ideas of the time. Soon the coffeehouses of London were nicknamed, the penny universities.  

Some of the coffeehouses specialized even further. The Lloyd’s coffeehouse began to keep the lists of the ships and their cargoes arriving and leaving the London docks every day. The latest news about the whereabouts and condition of any ship were available to Lloyds’ customers in that century’s real time. After a while, the coffeehouse made such a huge reputation in this particular area that it decided to restrict its customer base only to the people who had interest in shipping. First, it became a members-only establishment, and ultimately evolved into today’s giant Lloyd’s of London Insurance company.

The Grecian coffeehouse was popular among the scientists and Sir Isaac Newton was one of its regulars. Will’s was the poets’ and authors’ popular place to meet. Garraways’s and Jonathan’s were frequented by the financiers. In the large halls of these coffeehouses the shares of companies were auctioned on certain days and times. In 1761, Jonathan’s coffeehouse changed its name to London Stock Exchange.

On the science front, The Coffee Club of Oxford, which had been formed by a handful of students and professors, including Sir Robert Boyle, of the nearby universities, moved to London and constituted the foundations of The Royal Society in 1660.

The United Kingdom was followed by the other European countries, who opened their coffeehouses one by one in the following decades. The elite of Paris had already a taste of coffee, thanks to the charm and hospitality of the highly popular Ottoman ambassador, Sulaiman Aga, who had spent several months in the city in 1669. The Parisians could forget neither the humors and manners nor the coffee which was cooked by specially assigned staff and served in beautifully decorated fincans of the ambassador. It is said that, his chief coffeemaker, Kirkor Beg, did not want to go back home with the ambassador when it was time for the cortege to leave the city and decided to stay in Paris instead. Soon he made a fortune by selling coffee in the streets of Paris.

Following a period of peddlers and stalls, Paris welcomed its first coffeehouse in 1686. Café Procope was opened by a Sicilian immigrant and chef, Procopio Cultelli and is still in service. Among its customers were people such as Voltaire, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte, as well as the leaders of the French Revolution, Marat, Danton and Robespierre, each of whom played their roles in the making of today’s civilization. According to a legend, Napoleon, who was then a young officer was, one day, asked by the owner of Procope to pawn his hat when he did not have enough money to pay for his coffee.

The French coffeehouses developed their own characters. Soon they chose to be known as cafés. Contrary to the English coffeehouses, their menus included alcoholic drinks and food. Most of all, women became some of the most welcomed customers of the French cafés.

The French revolution was triggered by a young journalist Camille Desmoulins, when on 14 July 1789, he came to Café Foy, grabbed a table, climbed on it and made a passionate declamation against the royals. A few days later, the people of Paris were in front of Bastilles.

One day in 1844, other two revolutionists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would choose Paris’ Café Regence to meet and commence their life-long comradeships.

The first coffeehouse on the German soil was opened in Hamburg by an English merchant in 1679. This was quickly followed by other coffeehouses in Regensburg, Leipzig, Nurnberg, Stuttgart, Augsburg and finally in Berlin in 1721.

The coffee and coffeehouses were not very well received by the German royal establishment though. Their King, Frederick the Great, who had personal interests in a rival beverage, bier, stood strongly against the coffee. In 1777, he banned coffee in Germany altogether. His royal decree said, “our king and his ancestors grew up with bier, which is surely our national beverage. So, it is his subjects’ duty to refrain from this new beverage called coffee and continue drinking bier as their king and his ancestors”. He built an army of spies from the retired military men; whose duty was to walk through the streets with their noses on alert to pick up the slightest smell of coffee. The ban did not last long though, when the king understood that he would not be able to cope with the popularity of the drink even in his own court, he decided to lift the ban and enter the coffee business himself instead.

The German city of Leipzig has always been famous for the great musicians it gifted to the world. It was home to the famous composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Richard Wagner, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schuman and Gustav Mahler. Kaffeehauses such as Zimmermann and Zum Arabischer Coffe Baum were the places where the great musicians sought inspiration. Bach, who was reputedly consuming 30 cups of coffee every day, paid his respect to the beverage by creating his famous Coffee Cantata.

Perhaps Germany’s greatest contribution to coffee came from a different profession. For a long time, both the Turks and the Europeans had sipped their coffee from cups made of a wide range of material, from copper to gold and from animal bones to woods. However, nothing compared to the taste of coffee that came in fine porcelain. For centuries, China had dominated the porcelain market by keeping the secret of their fine porcelain products strictly. Their supremacy came to an end in 1708 when a German alchemist named, Johann Friedrich Böttger solved the secret of the Chinese porcelain. The Germans acted quickly and opened their first porcelain factory in Meissen two years later. Soon, all the palaces and rich houses of Europe as well as the Ottoman lands were having their coffees served in fine porcelain cups which were made in Germany.

Venice’s two competing coffeehouses, Caffè Florian and Caffè Lavena were located on the opposite sides of the St. Mark square. Caffè Florian was popular amongst the locals whereas Caffè Lavena was frequented by the foreigners. Hence while the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi was a regular customer of Florian, the German composer Richard Wagner had his special place on the second floor of Lavena. No wonder Casanova, whose reputation was in a completely different profession, did not have any fixed preference when it came to coffeehouses, he simply visited the one where he saw the greatest opportunity of the day.

Probably the only country which was introduced to coffee via blood was Austria. In 1683, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet IV, decided to conquer what was left of the Christian Europe and assembled one of the greatest armies that the history had ever seen to take Vienna, which was in a key position to the rest of Europe. If Vienna fell to the Ottomans, the way to the rest of the Christian Europe would be unlocked for the Turks.

The siege lasted for two months. Although the Turks came very close to capturing the city, they had a shocking defeat when the Polish King John Sobieski came to the rescue at the last minute. The perfectly coordinated attack between the Austrians from the city and the Polish army from behind the formidable Ottomans would not have been possible, had a Ukrainian spy, named Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki, not carried several messages between the city and the rescuing army. Kulczycki had previously lived in the Ottoman lands and could speak Turkish. He disguised himself as a Turk and crossed the Turkish troops several times with crucial messages between the allies.

After the Austrians were relieved from the Turkish siege, they wanted to reward their Ukrainian hero for his invaluable service to the city and the nation. They told him that he could take whatever he wanted from the booty that was left by the retreating Ottoman army. Kulczycki already had an idea about what to take. To the great surprise of the Viennese, who had never seen a coffee bean in their lives before, he chose to take the hundreds of sacks of coffee beans that the Ottoman army had left behind.

With the beans he was allowed to take from the Ottoman booty, Kulczycki opened the very first Viennese Kaffeehaus, The Blue Bottle. Today, he is still regarded as the saint of the Viennese coffehouses and honoured with a statue in the city.

The coffeehouses made their marks in the history of the New World too. In the 18th century, the settlers of the new continent were fed up with the taxes imposed by a government who was thousands of miles away. Furthermore, despite the heavy taxes on almost all the goods that were being imported to the continent from different parts of the British Empire, they had no representation in the parliament. Their patience exhausted in 1773, when King George III declared new taxes on the importation of tea to America. One evening in December, several patriots, gathered in the Green Dragon coffeehouse in Boston and made their plans for the next day. On 16 December, disguised as Indians, those men boarded the ships which were waiting for their cargo to be unloaded and dumped hundreds of chests of tea to the sea. That was the beginning of the American independence war which ended with the birth of a new nation on 4th of July 1776.

The dumping of British tea to the sea did not only trigger the Americans’ struggle for independence. It also revolutionized the newly born nation’s taste buds. From then on, coffee became the symbol of revolt and independence for the Americans and they became a nation of coffee drinkers.

200 miles away, in New York, another coffeehouse would become the symbol of the American capitalism. The Merchant’s coffeehouse which had been opened by a seaman named Daniel Bloom in 1750, became the gathering point of the town’s merchants and businessmen. Soon, like some of its counterparts in London, the coffeehouse specialized in the trade of company shares. In the following years the Merchant’s coffeehouse evolved into what is now known as the New York Stock Exchange.

In addition to its taste, coffee has always been an instrument that brought people together. It fed minds, energized people to think, discuss and express. Thanks to these properties, coffeehouses became the machine and coffee was the fuel of the western democracies and capitalism.

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