The Coffee House – A History

Coffee was cultivated in Africa as early as the 9th century, but it did not reach Europe until the 17th century. However, when it did, it was met with many varying opinions. It still caught on like a wildfire, even with the people that detested its existence. The 18th century London coffee house was the center of controversy, in many ways, even to the point of the king trying to ban coffee and close the establishments. Being the place for political discussion, some of the policies of our newly formed country might have originated in one of these places.

Coffee did not come via a direct route from Africa, but found its way to Britain through Mediterranean trade routes with the Muslim world. Queen Elizabeth I irritated her European neighbors by opening up diplomatic relations with her new-found Moroccan and Ottoman friends, establishing good trading relations and sea-faring agreements. This trade allowed goods such as tea from Asia, coffee, and chocolate to filter into England. The Middle East had coffee houses over a hundred years before they ever appeared in England.

In 1652 Pasqua Rosee, the servant of a merchant trader and an immigrant from Ottoman Smyrna, opened the first coffee house in London, which later became known as “The Turks Head.” “Rosee’s coffee-house, in St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, was located in the centre of the financial district of the City of London, and his first clientele were merchants of the Levant Company, the trading house that organised and regulated trade with the Ottoman Empire.” 1

In 1662, the “Great Turk Coffee House” opened, “Apparently, inside could be found a bust of Sultan Almurath IV himself, ‘the most detestable tyrant that ever ruled the Ottoman Empire.’ The customer could not only find coffee, tea and tobacco here, but also chocolate and a range of sherbets, which, according to the Mercurius Publicus (12-19 March 1662), were ‘made in Turkie; made of lemons, roses, and violets perfumed.'” 5 Not only did the coffee catch on among the people, but so did some of the Turkish culture. Some people began to wear turbans in the coffee houses.

Possibly because of the Islamic culture, and for other reasons, coffee houses were viewed as a place for renegades of Christianity. The new interest in other cultures continued past the fascination of the Middle East all of the way to the Orient. The Georgian period is marked by an Asian influence in art, literature, and academics.

Coffee houses caught on very quickly, so by 1663 there were more than 83 coffee houses in London. By the beginning of the eighteenth century there were as many as five or six hundred.2 The Prussian nobleman Baron Charles Louis von Pollnitz, who visited London in 1728, described them as one of the great pleasures of the city. He describes how it is “a Sort of Rule with the English, to go once a Day at least” to coffee-houses “where they talk of Business and News, read the Papers, and often look at one another.” 2 Some very famous companies even started as coffee houses. Lloyds of London, an insurance brokerage company, began as Edward Lloyd’s coffee house on Tower Street around 1688.

Today when we think of a coffee shop, we think of Starbucks. However, the coffee shops of the past were drastically different with their Middle Eastern culture. One thing they have in common is the social aspect, a place for discussion of new ideas, and that is what we’ll look at next month.

The coffee house, which originated in the Middle East around 1511, began simply as a place to enjoy an exotic drink, coffee, but soon evolved into a place that helped change the course of history. Before coffee houses arrived in London, the normal social gathering place was a pub or tavern. The first attraction to coffee might have been its newness or the exhilaration from the caffeine, but quickly it became another reason to meet, and the coffee house was a place for socializing.

A traveler to London in 1668 remarked, “Coffee-Houses, which are very numerous in London, are extremely convenient. You have all manner of news there; you have a good Fire, which you may sit by as long as you please; you have a Dish of Coffee; you meet your Friends for the transaction of Business, and all for a penny, if you don’t care to spend more.” 4

Some men spent so much time there that their mail was delivered directly to the coffee house! An interesting fact is that almost every coffee house allowed only male patrons, women being relegated to the home or elsewhere for coffee. Not allowing women into these coffee houses did cause a few problems, which were outlined in the “Women’s Petition Against Coffee” published in 1674. Really a mock petition, but rumors and claims against coffee drinking could have been taken serious whether or not they were true. And as stated in the previous quote, they charged only a penny for a cup of black coffee! This gave rise to their nickname, “Penny Universities.”

Womens Petition Against Coffee
Women’s¬†Petition Against Coffee

Soon there emerged a distinct difference between the pub and the coffee house, “Rumors of the health benefits of coffee were abundant, and coffee-houses encouraged sobriety, rational thought, and articulate political discussion, whereas taverns merely provided a haven for irreverence and intoxication.” 5 This wasn’t a place to escape the world and dull the senses, but rather a place to debate current events and create new ideas for how life should be. Until this time there did not exist a forum for the merchant or trading class to have such discussions.

The London Stock Exchange began with this atmosphere of bringing buyers and sellers together, setting market prices. The famous insurance underwriter, Lloyd’s of London, began in 1688 in a coffee house with Lloyd providing a free information service on shipping, publishing “Lloyd’s List.” It prospered as a place for marine insurance.6 And as far as politics are concerned, men met in the coffee house to discuss hot political topics, even stirring up fear in the king.

Some of our founding fathers may have sat in these coffee houses discussing the future of the colonies or how government should be, noting the pitfalls or failures of the monarchies of England and France. In 1675 King Charles II of England wrote a proclamation to have all of the coffee houses shut down; however, after a struggle with the owners of the coffee houses and other businessmen the proclamation was overturn.

Almost as quickly as they sprang up, the London coffee houses began to decline. They…

“had served their purpose and were no longer needed as meeting places for political or literary criticism and debate. They had seen the nation pass through one of its greatest periods of trial and tribulation; had fought and won the battle for individual freedom; had acted as a steadying influence in an age of profligacy; and had given us a standard of prose-writing and literary criticism unequalled before or since.” 7

In the 1500’s the worldwide coffee revolution began, and well after the decline of the London coffee house emerged a new generation, the “Starbuck’s Revolution.”

Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee-Houses

Source: Ellis, Aytoun. The Penny University: A History of the Coffee-Houses. (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1956) 92.



Whereas it is most apparent that the multitude of Coffee-houses of late years set up and kept within this Kingdom, the Dominion of Wales, and Town of Berwick upon Tweed, and the great resort of Idle and disaffected persons to them, have produced very evil and dangerous effects: as well for that many Tradesmen and others, do therein misspend much of their time, which might and probably would otherwise be imployed in and about their Lawful Callings and Affairs; but also, for that in such Houses…divers False, Halitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majestie’s Government, and to the disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm; His Majesty hath thought it fit and necessary, That the said Coffee-Houses be (for the future) Put down and Suppressed, and doth…Strictly Charge and Command all manner of persons, That they or any of them do not presume from and after the Tenth Day of January next ensuing, to keep any Publick Coffee-house, or to Utter or sell by retail, in his, her or their house or houses (to be spent or consumed within the same) any Coffee, Chocolet, Sherbett or Tea, as they will answer the contrary at their utmost perils…(All licenses formerly granted to be revoked).

Given at our court at Whitehall, this Nine-and-twentieth day of December 1675, in the Seven and twentieth year of Our Reign.


The Espresso Revolution

Just as coffee houses spread all over Europe in the 17th century, they were also opened in America in the late 17th century. The Merchant’s Coffee House in Philadelphia, also known as the City Tavern, was the meeting place of some of the finest gentlemen of the time, including Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lafayette and John Adams. The Tontine Coffee House in New York, in similar fashion to Lloyds of London, became the home of the New York Stock Exchange. Not only were the coffee houses places of intellectual trading, but hubs of business and opportunity.

As coffee became more widely used and known, there arose many new inventions pertaining to the process of brewing coffee. So many, in fact, that there is a museum in London (the Bramah Museum of Tea & Coffee that is filled with these devices. The original European and American coffee houses served traditional black coffee brewed by steeping the grounds in near boiling water, but in the early 1900’s there came about a new method that would revolutionize the coffee industry.

In Italy, Luigi Bezzera filed a patent for a machine that pushed steam and water through a “group” that held the coffee grounds in a filter. Later this patent was purchased by Desiderio Pavoni, and in 1905 the Pavoni company began manufacturing machines based on the Bezzera patent. In 1927 the first espresso machine was brought to America. This La Pavoni machine is still on display at the place where it was first installed, Caffe Reggio in New York, with a title of “Home of the Original Cappuccino.” Although this method increased the speed dramatically, from a brewing time of 4 minutes to about 20 seconds, hence the name espresso, the coffee tasted bitter because the steam was too hot.

Through more fine tuning of the idea, from Cremonesi to Rosetta Scorza to Achille Gaggia in 1946, we have the piston lever espresso machine. The Gaggia Coffee Bar in Italy was the first location to use these machines and to offer espresso along with the regular coffee. The modern age of coffee houses was born. And today, we have super automatic machines that can do everything, grinding the coffee and pouring the completed drink into the glass. It is these super automatic machines that Starbucks relies on every day.

The espresso machine and the Italian coffee house were two ingredients necessary to the formation of the coffee house giant, Starbucks, but oddly enough, Starbucks did not start out having anything to do with espresso. Named after Starbuck, the coffee loving first mate in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the company started out as a roaster and retailer of coffee beans, located in Seattle’s busy Pike Place Market. Starbucks Coffee, Tea, & Spice sold high quality coffee makers, from Hammarplast, for patrons to use at home, but focused on roasting high quality coffee beans from regions around the world and not on preparing the coffee.

Their mentor was Alfred Peet who had his store, Peet’s Coffee & Tea, in Berkeley, CA, which was also only a roaster and retailer of fine Arabica beans. As their customer base grew, Howard Schultz, the VP and US manager for Hammarplast, took notice of their quickly increasing sales numbers and soon paid them a visit. By this time Starbucks already had four stores in the Seattle area, was profitable every year, and was buying more from Hammarplast than Macy’s. Schultz was so impressed by the founder’s passion and authenticity that he even stated there was something magic about the place, and so he wanted to go to Seattle and work for them. It took over a year of courting before they finally agreed to let him take over as head of marketing.

A couple of years after he was hired to this position the company sent him to Milan, Italy, to attend a trade show. While he was walking from his hotel to the convention he discovered something – the Italian coffee house, which actually in Italy is a coffee bar. There was Italian opera music playing in the background, the smiling barista making the espresso drinks and socializing with the clientele, and surprisingly very few chairs. He was struck by the large number of coffee bars in this town and how they were all bustling with activity. He was inspired and brought his passion back to Seattle, where it was met with great distaste and resistance. Starbucks was a roaster, not a restaurant or bar; the beverage business would distract them their mission as a coffee retailer. The answer, “NO.” At the same time the owners were excited about the opportunity that had opened up to purchase Peet’s Coffee and Tea, which they did.

Now traveling back and forth between the companies, Schultz still pursued the idea of a coffee bar. After a year, they finally agreed to allow an espresso machine in one location, and that day they served 400 people, well above their 250 customer average. In two months it grew to 800 people and the lines stretched outside the door. Even through this success, the original owners did not want to pursue this venture. Schultz decided the only thing he could do was leave and start his own company, Il Giornale Coffee Company. It did great and quickly grew to three profitable stores.

Starbucks Original Store Pike Place Market
Starbucks Original Store Pike Place Market

In April of 1987 the owners of Starbucks decided to sell the business, one owner wanted to cash out and the other was going to focus on Peet’s Coffee & Tea, and he said that Peet’s was original and it was better. Schultz knew that he needed to purchase Starbucks, and after raising enough capital he did, afterwards changing the name of all of his Il Giornale coffee bars into Starbucks. His vision, dedication, and leadership skills propelled Starbucks into the world class company it has become.


1,2) Coffee House, The [Coffee-House] (1652) (Henri Misson, pp. 39-40).

5) The European Coffee House: A Political History (PDF)

6) Lloyd’s of London – from Coffee House to Insurance Market

7) Ellis, The Penny Universities: 239.

An Espresso Timeline

Starbucks Case Study

Starbucks Timeline

Gaggia History

Tontine Coffee House

Stefanie Spencer

Stefanie Spencer

Stefanie writes for the Voice in the Desert newspaper, a local paper serving Cochise County, Arizona.
Stefanie Spencer

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