Or what to expect when visiting an 18th century coffee house or its 21st century recreation.
|Mad Dog in a Coffeehouse, Thomas Rowlandson, 1809.|
One cold day in December 1663, Samuel Pepys did what many men before him, and even more after him, would do; he went to the coffeehouse. He was greeted upon entering the central room of the Coffeehouse by a rotund yet energetic coffee man with an exclamation of “What news sir?” and the offer of a steaming dish of coffee, which Pepys took happily, adding just a bit of sugar to sweeten the bitter brew. From here he wound his way through the crowd to a heavy worn table which filled the center of the otherwise open room. Scattered across the wooden surface were various newspapers, a well-worn copy of the French play “Heraclius, Emperor of the East. A tragedy”, three flickering candles despite the daylight hour and, mixed among it all, dishes of coffee in every state of consumption. Surrounding the table Pepys found an assortment of men with whom he would share “very good discourse” some that he was well acquainted with, having shared conversations in the past, others that he had not yet met, a fact that did not limit their discussions in any way.
Among the coffeehouse patrons Pepys found the flamboyantly dressed “Secretary of the Virtuosi of Gresham College” with whom he would enjoy a “very fine discourse” concerning a newly invented instrument to be tried at the college the following day. Next his attention was drawn to a less academic but no less enthusiastic “discourse with an Iron Merchant” where Pepys discovered the difficulties experienced in that trade between the Swedes and English. A thin boy, no more than 12 years old scurried among the crowd, ensuring that the men's dishes of coffee remained well supplied. At the cost of only one penny a dish, the men were unlikely to complain about this constant attention, preferring instead to continually sip at the hot liquor without interrupting their adamant discussions.
|The Discomfited Duellists, 1784.|
From across the crowded room Pepys saw his good friend, taking his dish of coffee he left the iron merchant and crossed to “[sit] by Mr. Harrington, and some East country merchants” whom he found “talking of the country about Quinsborough” and “the manner of putting their nets into the water” during winter. Soon his attention was distracted by the vociferous argument at another table, as the patrons dispute the suggestion that “all the opinion now is that the Dutch will avoid fighting with us at home. . . ” Finally, Pepys found his acquaintance Mr. Harris, who he “was to meet” at the coffeehouse for business. The two eventually leave the coffeehouse but most certainly returned another time for the latest news, freshest advices and camaraderie of other gentlemen such as had been enjoyed that day.
|Widow Black's Coffeehouse, 2012.|
I can not promise that if you happen "to stroll into a little coffee-house", perhaps on the edge of a green field, the checkered floors & a lot hanging roof, that you will find such entertaining friends as Mr. Pepy's did, or the excitement that Mr. Rowlandson drew. However, I can promise a constant supply of the finest true English coffee, the freshest advices from around the colonies & indeed, across the seas. But most of all, I can promise an experience as true to that of the original English coffeehouses, an experience that no other reenactor or historian has attempted to duplicate purely for the enjoyment of their fellow reenactors. I look forward to seeing many of you at the Widow Black's Coffeehouse "this year", whether that is 1650, 1760 or 1812.
For more information on visiting the Widow Black's coffeehouse, the Widow's lecture schedule or to bring the coffeehouse to your event; Please Visit the Widow Black Coffeehouse on Facebook.
Chole White, Camaraderie of the Cup: The 18th century English coffeehouse & the development of an enlightened public sphere (2011).
Thomas Rowlandson, Mad Dog in a Coffeehouse, 1809 (Museum of Fine Arts Boston).
Samuel Pepys, Mynors Bright, and Henry B. Wheatley, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Transcribed by the Rev. Mynors Bright from the Shorthand Manuscript in the Pepysian Library at Magdalene College Cambridge Vol. 1 (New York: Heritage Press, 1942), 8 March, 1663/4.
Joseph Addison & Richard Steele, The Spectator, Volume 5 (Philadelphia: Robert Desilver, 1819).