Did you know that the first site of the New York Stock Exchange was a Coffee House? So was the London Stock Exchange’s first site. The Coffee House, it turns out, was the common gathering place for business, commerce and daily news. It was, also, the venue of choice for political and philosophical debate among patrons.
The traditional history of coffee, linking the discovery of the coffee bean to a 9th-century Ethiopian shepherd boy who noticed his goats’ agitation upon indulging on the now famous berry, appears in writing much later, in the late 1600’s. While evidence confirms the origin of the plant, it is not possible to verify the young goatherd’s story. What we do know is that by the time the story was put into print, the Coffee House had set roots in the Middle East since at least the late 1400’s, notably in Mecca and Constantinople.
The Coffee House then took England by storm right around the same time as chocolate and tea. The first English establishment opened by 1652. It is believed that there were well over 500 Coffee Houses throughout England by the mid 1700’s.
We often imagine great post Medieval European Inns and eateries as the gathering places of overbearing, and most likely drunk, businessmen with a heavy coin purse, a loud voice and little manners. This is, after all, the most common depiction we find in movies. However, it is not accurate in the case of the Coffee House.
The original Coffee House has been compared to private clubs and fraternities of great colleges. The spirit of it appears similar in many ways. The Coffee House was the gathering place of intellectuals for sure. Men could spend long hours chatting away at their local Coffee House without the obligation to refill their cups. A single penny provided initial admission and the freedom to stay as long as desired. For these reasons, the Coffee House has been dubbed the “Penny University.”
The most notable Coffee Houses across Europe and America owed much of their popularity to the fact that men (indeed, almost always only men at the time) could gather peacefully and soberly to find refreshment and news, and to conduct daily business with colleagues and prospects. The Coffee House was the networking place of its time; a sort of precursor to today’s Internet Café, if you will.
It is interesting to note that at the time when Coffee Houses and their counterpart, the tavern, were popular, potable water was not immediately available in growing urban centers. One could safely drink boiled water, however, or alcoholic beverages.