Chatting over Coffee

One cannot walk along a high street of any self-respecting town without coming across a branch of some or other chain of coffee houses.

They are warm, dark-furnished aromatic places where coffee of every conceivable texture and flavour are sipped over ambling conversations.

All the world is there: the businessmen with their laptops, the mums with pushchairs parked nearby, women catching up on life with friends, small-scale meetings and one-man newspaper tents. Β Just for a short time, we have got off the world and paused.

It seems such a thoroughly modern spectacle.

Yet it is ancient.

“Until the year 962 [1555],” relates Ottoman historian Ibrahim Pecevi “in the High, God-Guarded city of Constantinople, as well as in Ottoman lands generally, coffee and coffee-houses did not exist. About that year, a fellow called Hakam from Aleppo and a wag called Shams from Damascus came to the city; they each opened a large shop in the district called Tahtakale, and began to purvey coffee.”

And so it began. People met to pass along news; there were board games and storytellers took turns to tell stories or even preach sermons: sometimes as many as three in a coffee house at one time.

Europe could not resist such an institution and first Hungary and then other European countries fell into the thrall of the coffee bean.

A coffee-house arrived in Oxford in 1652; and in the same year one popped up at St Michael’s Alley in Cornhill, London.

By 1675 there were 3,000 coffee houses in England.

And then different coffee houses began to attract specialised clienteles. Lloyds in Tower Street, set up in 1680, attracted merchants and ship owners. The Grecian was at Wapping Old Stairs, home respectively to the opposition Whigs in its early days and scientists from the Royal Society later. It also attracted philosophers; and it is said two customers fell out and fought a duel outside over where to place the accent on a Greek word.

The literary men headed for Covent Garden, where, around 1710, a ‘knot of wits’ was said to gather in Daniel Button’s Coffee House on a regular basis.

It must have been hard to arrive a stranger, and find a way to become part of the bustling clan.

A Dublin-born cleric, Jonathan Swift was also a pamphleteer, a poet, and author of books including Gulliver’s Travels.

And this is the story of his introduction to Button’s clientele.

It comes courtesy of one Ambrose Philips, one of the customers, who noticed that for several days in a row, a strange cleric would come into the coffee-house: one who seemed not to know a soul.

He always did the same thing. He would put his hat on a table, and then would walk backwards and forwards for about half an hour. During this time he would not speak to a single soul, and he seemed oblivious of everything that was happening there.

And then he would pay the people behind the counter, pick up his hat and leave.

There was no better way to arouse the curiosity of the coffee drinkers than this. They watched one evening as Swift made his first stilted gambit. He walked up to a gentlemen in muddy boots. and he opened a conversation about the weather.

But not in an entirely conventional way.

“Pray, sir,” he began, “do you remember any good weather in the world?”

The traveller was nonplussed at the singular figure before him. He groped for an answer. And he observed that yes: in his time, he remembered some good weather.

Swift came out with a long, beautifully crafted, incongruous reply. “That is more than I can say; I never remember any weather that was not too hot, or too cold; too wet, or too dry, but, however God Almightly contrives it, at the end of the year ’tis all very well.”

And he picked his hat up and strode out of Buttons “leaving all those who had been spectators of this odd scene staring after him, and still more confirmed in the opinion of his being mad.”

Of course he settled down there and made great friends; he worked with those he met there to found the Scriblerans Club, which included Alexander Pope and his great friend John Arbuthnot, the mathematician and pamphleteer, alongside other great names.

A cup of coffee has held an allure for millennia; and bound up with that aromatic concoction is the ability to pass ideas back and forth; to pause and reflect on the bustling life we lead; and significantly, to make ideas and plans for that other undiscovered country, The Future.

And all springing from a coffee shop run by HakamΒ from Aleppo and a wag called Shams.

Worth thinking about, the next time you order a latte.

Especially as Button’s is now a Starbuck’s.


Picture source here


58 thoughts on “Chatting over Coffee

  1. ‘Buttons is now a Starbuck’s’? – tragic! Still, I suppose it’s good that it’s still in operation.

    As I read this I had the vision of Mrs Miggins’ coffee shop (Black Adder) in my mind with Dr Johnson and his dictionary… oh dear! my cultural references are deplorable!

  2. Wow, I had no idea that thousands of coffee houses were around back in the 17th century. I think Swift might be right – we do tend to remember the bad weather. Love your ‘one-man newspaper tents’ – haha.

    1. My father in law was famous for building them in his front room, Gabrielle: whereupon the family dog would delight in crashing through to appear in the middle of some headline or other.

  3. I even have a radio station I listen to that calls itself “Coffeehouse”–it’s basically the music played in Starbucks. The ambience is indeed what we pay for. There is a nice sociability that comes with the price of a cup, and I certainly admit to my addiction. I am a bit shocked, though, to read the 17th century statistics, and forgive my extremes of ignorance, but I really didn’t think coffee held such prominence in England. I really am uninformed! Your information gathering and dissemination is not only resourceful, it is apparently necessary! πŸ™‚ Debra

    1. πŸ˜€ A whole coffee-orientated radio station, Debra! Well I never… I may be going out on a limb here but it seems to me that coffee was a very male beverage in those days. There was even a ‘The Women’s Petition Against Coffee’ was set up and it claimed in 1674 that coffee “made men as unfruitful as the deserts whence the unhappy berry is said to be brought.”

      Ho hum.

  4. A small local chain opened a coffee shop across the road from us last year. It has quickly adapted to being my second office, where I locate appointments and meetings. Its far more convivial than my pokey little first office (and the coffee’s better!). Your Swift anecdote has me wondering how I might employ my hat to good advantage when next over there!

  5. Fond memories, a Starbucks in Sydney that rescued me from the horror of weeks of coffee that all tasted burnt (something odd about the Aussie taste in coffee),

    A Starbucks in Beijing, giving the Canadian her first comfortable minutes outside the safety of the hotel, and where I saw my ‘horseman from Mongolia” preening in his new hat.

    But for coffeeshops in general, who doesn’t have fond memories of specific places with specific members of the coffee-gang?

    1. You are right, Sidey: immediately I read your comment I thought of the coffee shop opposite the British Museum, gazing happily at one of my favourite places in the world.

  6. I had a studio in Covent Garden from 1971 to I985 (in Shelton St and in Floral Hall) yet I’ve never heard of Buttons. However I’m sad to hear that it has turned into a Starbucks, as that’s the worst thing that could happen to a coffee shop.

  7. The week after MTM first had his way with me, he emailed me at work and invited me to meet him at Starbucks for coffee, something we now do almost every work day we can. However, that day, I responded by correlating coffee with the other thing since he tricked me into the house by inviting me in for coffee…… To this day, we still joke that we need COFFEE all the time. πŸ™‚

    1. It did indeed, Jim πŸ™‚ 1698 saw lists of stock being put up at Jonathan’s Coffee House after stockbrokers were expelled from the Royal exchange for being rowdy. By 1761 there were 150 stock brokers and jobbers operating from there. In 1773 “New Jonathan’s” was built, and soon re-dubbed “The Stock Exchange.”

      And the rest is history.

      I love tea myself, too.

  8. Although I no longer go to Starbucks daily, preferring the free coffee at the office, I still meet folks there for various types of meetings. It is relaxed, usually comfy and very public in that everyone is wrapped up in their own little worlds. It’s a great place to meet someone for the first time, and there are so many that you are always able to find one close for the both of you.

    Great story about the history of coffee houses, I leave here every day a little wiser for having dropped in.

    1. They’re the ones I love writing most, Yaakov πŸ™‚ I didn’t answer your Downton query: Highclere will be open in early April. Depending on the demands of my family I’m hoping to get along with my camera and find out more….

      1. We truly are in the “sticks” here, Kate. I must drive nearly 30 miles to find a Starbucks. Hence, my morning coffee is brewed in the single-cup, Keurig-like brewer on the kitchen counter. The upside to that is I never drink something that’s been idling in the pot for any length of time, and I may change blends from one cup to the next if I choose (and now Starbucks is packaging for use in such a brewer, so maybe the next time I shop for K-cups I’ll get a package with the mermaid…..) πŸ™‚

    1. Ah, first performed in Zimmerman’s in Leipzig:

      “Mm! how sweet the coffee tastes,
      more delicious than a thousand kisses,
      mellower than muscatel wine.
      Coffee, coffee I must have,
      and if someone wishes to give me a treat,
      ah, then pour me out some coffee!”

      1. And when we were young (50’s and 60’s) we had coffee bars – usually with a
        Spanish influence, and called names like “El Toro”. Students used to flock there –
        so much better than clubbing or pubbing!

        Love dad

  9. It really is a social kind of a place. Though lately it seems (at least in North America) that it’s all about the ‘to go’ cup. Much fewer people are stopping and taking time to enjoy their beverage of choice in the coffee shop itself, which seems sad to me. I like sitting and enjoying my morning tea in a relaxing way, instead of running for the bus or the train with scalding tea sloshing down my arm when the plastic top pops off from too tight a grip on the flimsy paper cup that’s making my hand go numb with heat. Really enjoyed the post πŸ™‚

    1. Good, and I couldn’t agree more: we are time poor. If we are going to have a warm aromatic drink, shouldn’t it be savoured? “To go” implies we are just too busy to pass the time of day with our fellow man.

  10. Enlightening, as always Kate! I always learn something new here.

    For about ten years there was a coffeehouse in my old town, the Chocolate Moon. Ah, the stories I could tell about that little hole in the wall where folks gathered, made friends (my group was dubbed the Moonies), planned editorials for the local papers, played at politics, raised their children. It closed one day. No warning. Just closed. Folks walked around for weeks, confused and angry and looking for a place to sit and have coffee.

  11. ha ha that quote from swift is brilliant, isn’t everyone always complaining about the weather.. i knew there were coffee houses before there were tea rooms but i had no idea it was so long ago.. how lovely! another good solid essay kate.. morning.. c

  12. Would that we were closer to meet for coffee or tea πŸ™‚ Such an interesting post (as always) – you are much in my thoughts and keeping a special place for mum xx

  13. I’ll try this again. . .

    Do you think that, someday, future generations will look back at our ‘Starbucks-style” coffee houses with the kind of fondness with which you write about these coffee-houses of the past? Reading your blogs always gets me thinking, Kate. Thank you!

  14. Dear Kate, I never fail to learn something from your postings. Or perhaps better to say, you never fail to teach me something. Inform. Entertain. Intrigue.

    Being not a coffee drinker but a tea imbiber, I’ve never been in a Starbucks. Maybe there, I’d find an agent for my novel!!!!


  15. I love this. Thank you for posting on coffee on the heals of my own post. Thank you for teaching us something that also causes us to contemplate the future. Sorry that Buttons is now a Starbucks though.

    1. I loved your post, Tammy πŸ™‚ That beautiful old machine in the picture was a perfect symbol of the coffee culture. Mine came about reading an anecdote about Swift. What an odd soul….but it got me to coffee houses through the back door.

      Apologies for the disappearance of your comment for a while! Bafflingly it, and others, ended up in the spam folder!

  16. sigh…now this is sad, Kate. You’ve got me longing for a cup right before midnight (smiles). A wonderful tidbit of information for a brew that acts a a reward that ‘keeps me nose to the grind’ all day.
    You know what is wonderful about your reads…I even learn things from the comments! Very much enjoyed the sidebar info with your father, cheers ~

  17. Love your anecdote about Swift. Gulliver’s Travel is about to be read, again, for the very first time. Every time I peer into it . . . something I’ve overlooked in the past peers out. πŸ˜€

  18. Thank goodness Starbucks did not prevail here in Sydney, Kate, and the coffee cafes in the style of Button’s Coffee House do – as you have painted so beautifully here, those “dark-furnished aromatic places where coffee of every conceivable texture and flavour are sipped over ambling conversations” are a perfect respite from the bustle of life and for the hatching of all sorts of plans – who would have thought that they have such a rich and ancient history?! πŸ™‚

  19. This makes me think of a book I read a few months ago called, “The Skin Map” – it was about time travel and it featured a young woman who traveled by accident into the past and needed a job and set up the first coffee house in a city other than what she knew was right according to history….you gotta do what you gotta do – who wouldn’t want to be the first to corner the market on that business?

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