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  • Writer's picturePaullett Golden

Coffeehouses & Tearooms of the 18th Century

Publication Date: April 1, 2020

Before the quintessential tearoom, we had coffeehouses.

Painting of a coffeehouse scene

You might recall that our hero Sebastian in The Earl and The Enchantress visits a coffeehouse. Quite a few chapters later, our heroine Lizbeth and her sister Charlotte visit a tearoom. These are such normal places in our own lives that it might seem strange or unlikely that people in the 18th century would have a coffeehouse or a tearoom to go to, especially when the coffee and tea at the time was less than palatable, not to mention expensive, and lest we forget variety-less. For this research discussion, let's talk 18th century coffeehouses and tearooms!

Painting of Interior of a London Coffee-House, 17th Century
Interior of a London Coffee-House, 17th Century

I'd like to open with one of the best articles I've seen on the topic. This has an in-depth history that is extensive and well worth the read. I'll be sharing quite a few other sources, but this one has a special place in my heart. As you'll learn from the article, the first coffeehouse in London appeared in 1652, and by the early 18th century, there were more than 3,000 of them, 550 in London alone! Each coffeehouse had its own vibe and ambiance, so no chains or franchises. This article has a wonderful discussion of the culture and more. My first encounter with 18th century coffeehouses was back in grad school when I read and studied Samuel Pepys' diary as part of my studies in restoration literature. He was a frequenter of such establishments, and by frequenter, I mean he sometimes spent all day at the coffeehouse or returned two or three times in the same day (hey, he sounds like me...). Like Pepys, those who spent their time in a coffeehouse were the well-educated, often literary or political minded, who sought a place to share conversation. The coffee itself was, truthfully, of little importance, merely providing an excuse for like-minded individuals to gather together for good conversation.

Landmark sign of the first London coffeehouse
Landmark Sign

The conversation (rather than the coffee) was not the only draw to coffeehouses. Many provided newspapers free of charge, a perfect opportunity for coffeehouse goers to get their dose of news to discuss with friends. They would read the articles together then converse about them. This is the inspiration for what you'll see in A Dash of Romance. Not to give any spoilers to the novella, but there's a local coffeehouse that factors into the story, as well as an exclusive newspaper that only patrons receive for imbibing the coffee or tea. Newspapers of this sort, both real and in the novella, were published frequently, as many times as 3 publications per week.

It's unlikely you would see a peer sitting at a coffeehouse as we see Sebastian doing, but it wouldn't have been unheard of. More likely, peers would enjoy their conversation, coffee, or otherwise at one of the members-only gentleman's club, such as White's or Boodle's. Members of Parliament, authors, merchants, men of fashion (Beau Brummel perhaps?), Whigs and Tories alike could be seen in a coffeehouse, often as a daily hangout. Two key things were excluded: women and alcohol. Sebastian, being a political radical and not inclined to company with his peers, would have found a coffeehouse the perfect place to enjoy a paper, eavesdrop, or converse with like-minded souls. This article is brief but touches on some of the folks you might find in a coffeehouse. This post offers the same information (in brief) that the previous articles have offered, but I'm including it because of the two fantastic videos that talk about the coffeehouse culture and influence on the Age of Enlightenment.

Sketch of Button's Coffee House by William Hogarth, 1720
Button's Coffee House by William Hogarth, 1720

The coffee itself was supposedly dreadful, as quite a few of the articles I've shared have attested to. So, just how was the coffee made? This article goes into quite a few details, including some of the differences between a breakfast coffee and what you might find in a coffeehouse.

Now, let's talk tea and tea houses. It was the coffeehouses that first served tea as a beverage choice. It was incredibly expensive but more palatable than the coffee and gained popularity enough to concern taverns and inns that sold alcohol since patrons were taking their business to coffeehouses for the tea (and coffee) instead. Tea was being served in coffeehouses by 1657. In A Dash of Romance, we'll meet an enterprising innkeeper who decides not to have coffeehouses or tea houses be the competition, rather to be a source of business, as he offers a public room for alcohol and food then a private room for the coffee and tea, complete with local newspaper. Historically, the growing popularity of tea brought quite a bit of attention from the government who decided to profit through taxation, thus beginning the great tea smuggling business. Read more about that here. For a more thorough exploration of the types of tea available, how it was served, etc. check out Kim Wilson's book Tea with Jane Austen. This blog post also has pretty much everything you could dream of knowing about tea at the time, though it is quite long.

Sketch of Sally Lunn's Ground Floor
Sally Lunn's Ground Floor

Where does the tea house fit into the scheme of things? Not until the late-middle 19th century did we have tea shops or tea houses as we know them today. What existed instead were other establishments that happened to serve tea. Coffeehouses are an example, but since those were exclusive to males, women had to find their tea elsewhere. Gardens and bakeries were the tea houses of the 18th century, serving black or green tea with homemade breads, cakes, and breakfasts. Breads could be sweet or savory, of course. An example of a popular Georgian era bakery that was known to serve tea is Sally Lunn's in Bath. Yes, it's still in business. It's a tiny little place, but if you're ever in Bath, it's a must visit (easily missed as it's tucked in an alley, walking/wheeling access only, worth the park and walk). This page offers a fantastic description of how tea was prepared, both in eatery establishments and in private homes. The final source I'd like to share is the most detailed of all, exploring the different types of tea, the different types of pots and cups, and far more. There are no fancy pictures, just a simple .pdf file, but it's an educational read and not too long.


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