Coffee is a commodity, an addiction and a sprawling, multifaceted industry. As an early career academic I am no stranger to this peculiar gateway drug. As a scholar of early eighteenth-century literature, rarely a day goes by when I don’t find myself contemplating its attraction.
Coffee, it seems, is far more than a drink. The word’s meaning extends beyond the representation of a ground java bean. Coffee indicates hard work, perseverance, round-the-clock hours. Coffee is the drink you reach for when your back is against the wall.
Coffee also conjures a very malleable and pervasive image of community. Signifying a perennially fashionable sophistication, the coffee house as a cultural icon stands alone in a broadly imagined hinterland, somewhere between the stuffy cloisters, closets and libraries of the University academy and the hipster caricatures of Camden and Shoreditch.
This almost subconscious cultural understanding that the contemporary coffee shop yearns nostalgically for the coffee culture of a bygone era was born amidst the pages of popular print bought and sold at the dawn of the eighteenth century.
When the Arts Enterprise at the University of Sheffield offered me the chance to develop a short film with professional film-maker Gemma Thorpe, I immediately knew that it was this cultural dialogue, between the coffee house now and its eighteenth-century forbearers, that I wanted to explore. What is the coffee shop, what has it always been, and what has it always wanted to be?
As I began pitching the film I found my mind wandering to an uncanny moment I had not long-since experienced when reading the following words, written of the eighteenth century by Rose Macaulay in 1942:
‘The Augustans ushered in the new century with polish. High living and, if not high thinking, at least incessant talking, prevailed among the more leisured classes. Conversation was ardently pursued; men rose of a morning, met at their pet coffee house, exchanged the news, and talked; later they went to dinner and still talked; then walked and talked in park or Mall, then to assembly or play and talked some more, then again to the coffee house or chocolate house, where they played and talked till midnight.’
First, it was both mildly unnerving and tremendously exciting to see the literature and culture of a profoundly complicated, convoluted and contradictory society synthesised into such an erudite, witty and well-observed caricature. Secondly, I read this passage for the first time whilst sitting in a coffee shop, just off Division Street, in Sheffield.
I felt, for that moment, the very coffee house culture that had provided so much context for the literature, philosophy and culture of the eighteenth century, was alive once again all around me.
To my left, a small and boisterous group were laughing about their morning at the office, relishing their fleeting lunch break, whilst beside them another patron studiously flicked through a copy of I, purchased at the bar with his coffee. Behind them, sitting at the counter at the front of the shop, looking out onto the busy streets, a small group of students indulged in the acutely voyeuristic pleasure of people-watching, whilst I, situating in a quiet and shadowy corner, drank coffee and read literature. This, apparently, was the world of my research born anew.
Time and again, over the past four years, I’ve been reading about the eighteenth-century coffee house whilst making full use of Sheffield’s booming industry of independent coffee shops. Since 2010, dozens of new establishments have appeared, all offering high-quality artisan coffee in highly stylised environments.
It is in exactly such coffee shops that a boom in cheap print first made a monumental impact on eighteenth-century society, irreversibly changing Britain, and the world, forever
Sheffield then, proved the perfect location to create a film about the origins of coffee house culture. The rise of the original London coffee houses proved perfectly analogous to the birth of a new coffee culture currently rising in Yorkshire’s steel city.
Shot entirely on location at ‘Couch’ coffee shop on Campo lane, the film features footage of real coffee-drinkers whiling away a Friday afternoon in the heart of Sheffield. The film’s soundtrack compiles contrasting descriptions of coffee houses, interspersed with the opinions of people who we interviewed in coffee shops around the city.
The film gestures towards the surprising history of coffee houses and their representation in popular culture, ultimately foregrounding two rival interpretations of what the coffee house is capable of being before encouraging viewers to decide which reading they prefer.
The most enduring descriptions of this coffee house culture survives in one of the very periodicals written to be read in just such coffee houses. The periodical, written by those two fathers of modern journalism, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, was called The Spectator, and it set out to both capture and regulate the spirit of the age in which it was read. As the paper’s fictional editor claims in its tenth issue:
‘It was said of Socrates that he brought Philosophy down from heaven, to inhabit among men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I have brought Philosophy out of closets and libraries, schools and colleges, to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables and in coffee-houses.
Met with an increasingly twenty-four hour society, and a newly pervasive press, it was Addison and Steele’s proclaimed intention to fill these coffee shops with knowledge, culture, reason, philosophy, ideas, opinion and, above all, learned conversation.
And, if Macaulay’s words are anything to go by, they were successful.
Alas, Macaulay’s account of ‘incessant talking’ is, for the most part, a parody. In Lives of the English, it is Macaulay’s intention to take readers on a comical jaunt through the social life of the England, from Ancient Britain to the present day, discovering as she goes a stubborn similarity of behaviours across the centuries.
The coffee house imagined by Addison and Steele as a public sphere of debate and discussion grounded in enlightened principles of self-improvement is, for Macaulay, hilariously undermined by the reality that these coffee houses were commercial enterprises that preyed upon the pretentious, extorting money from lazy posers in exchange for a den in which they could imagine themselves to be great thinkers, philosophers and politicians. Macaulay’s punchline is as much a parody of the way in which this coffee house culture was recorded and promoted in its own time as it that coffee house culture itself.
Even back in the eighteenth century, a literary period largely characterised by its merciless satirists, the tendency of the coffee house to imagine itself as being more than the acceptable face of day-time drinking was a source of cutting ridicule.
In Alexander Pope’s landmark mock-epic, The Rape of the Lock, the poet encourages readers to ask whether the coffee house was really the home of learned discussion, or merely an impression of it. Memorably, when his bathetic heroine arrives in a London coffee house, Pope introduces her commodity of choice as:
‘Coffee, (which makes the politician wise,
And see thro’ all things with half shut eyes).’
In the experimental Orlando: A Biography, written in 1928, Virgina Woolf introduces her titular protagonist of no fixed age or gender to these very same coffee house contradictions. Upon arriving in the eighteenth century Orlando is at first excited and fulfilled by London society and its coffee houses, but it soon dawns on her that she cannot account for why this is so, other than that she feels obligated to feel this way. Upon encountering this paradox, the narrator suggests that any scientific or factual explanation for this feeling is unlikely, musing that:
‘[t]o give a truthful account of London society at that or indeed any other time, is beyond the powers of the biographer or the historian. Only those who have little need of truth, and no respect for it – the poets and the novelists – can be trusted to do it, for this is one of those cases where truth does not exist. Nothing exists. The whole things is a miasma – a mirage.’
The coffee house of The Spectator is found here to be a mirage, a dream. Nevertheless, the dream was a popular and lucrative one. Indeed, by utilising the coffee shop as a place to sell their periodicals Addison and Steele shifted an incredible number of units and ensured a place for their periodicals (if not always themselves) amongst posterity. Even Orlando, who is unsettled by the disjunction between her idea of the coffee house and the commercial reality, returns once more:
‘She made a point sometimes of passing beneath the windows of the coffee house, where she could see the wits without being seen… Never was any play so absorbing. She wanted to cry out, Bravo! Bravo! For, to be sure, what a fine drama it was – what a page torn from the thickest volume of human life.’
The coffee house that Addison and Steele inhabited might not have been entirely the enlightened hub of culture and reason that they reported, but in penning this imagined coffee house, and in utilising the real coffee house to sell their papers, they created a legacy that still survives today, and can be found just off Division Street, in the heart of Sheffield.
Though eighteenth-century London might not have invented the coffee house, it certainly learnt how to market it. And what these coffee shops also did, and what they are doing now here in Sheffield, for real, was provide a space for communities.
A real, physical place, where anyone can to go to chat, to talk, to pose. It is somewhere for people to be with other people, and that alone is worth celebrating. As Woolf noted in Orlando, the coffee house is riddled with contradictions, but this does not diminish its splendour:
‘At one and the same time, therefore, society is the most powerful concoction in the world and society has no existence whatsoever.’
The short film ‘The Coffee House’, filmed on location at ‘Couch’ on Campo Lane, was filmed and edited by Gemma Thorpe (vimeo.com/gemmathorpe). The film’s production was generously funded by Arts Enterprises at the University of Sheffield (www.sheffield.ac.uk/artsenterprise). Many thanks to everyone who agreed to be in the film. Thank you to everybody I interviewed, and thank you to all of my valiant voice artists: Professor Adam Piette, Dr Amber Regis, Zelda Hannay and Peter Walters. Special thanks also to Rob Edgar at York St John University, whose advice on screen-writing was profoundly helpful.
Joseph Addison, The Spectator No. 10 (March, 1711)
Rose Macaulay, Life Among the English (Prion, 1996) p. 64.
Alexander Pope, ‘Rape of the Lock’ in Pope: Poetical Works, ed. by Herbert Davis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) pp. 86-109.
Virginia Woolf, Orlando (London: Penguin Classics, 2000), p 140.
John Houghton, Collection for the Improvement of Husbandry and Trade, No. 461 (1701)