Coffee House Culture in the USA

Coffee House Culture in the USA. Coffee Shop scene with friends at a table together, toasting with coffee drinks.

Coffee Culture Comes To America

It is generally agreed that coffee, though known in the colonies that would become the United States, did not become the popular beverage it was today until the Boston Tea Party in 1773. As Tori Avey puts it, that is “when making the switch from tea to coffee became something of patriotic duty.” For the most part, coffee has always been in import for the United States out of necessity; the only state which has successfully been able to grow the plant on economic levels is Hawaii. California is attempting to join them, and Pueto Rico, a United States territory is also a decent producer of coffee. People have tried, to be sure, throughout history to incorporate coffee agriculture in the United States. In 1822, a group known as the Coffee Land Association applied for a land grant in the newly acquired Florida for the purpose of growing coffee there. In around 1852, a man named Francis Bonynge wrote a book called “The Future Wealth of America.” In this book, he advocated, based on his observations while living abroad, for the installation of coffee, tea and other “Eastern” crops in the Southern United States, making the argument that the free labor from enslaved people there would ensure vast profits from such endeavors.

Despite not taking hold agriculturally, coffee’s growth as a commercial commodity in the United States has been almost constant since the rebellious tea party in Boston. It remained somewhat inaccessible to consumers because of price for a while. A coffee roaster opened in New York City in 1793 for the purposes of selling to hotels and bars primarily; the business was difficult to maintain at this time because of pricing and problems with shipping, mainly the time shipping took which often resulted in damaged, unappealing coffee beans upon arrival. There was a coffee crash in around 1881 and the US government worked on adjusting coffee prices in order to re-boost the decimated coffee industry.

In 1864, John and Charles Arbuckle built a coffee roasting plant and became one of the first to sell roasted coffee to consumers; prior to this, it was typical to roast your own coffee at home, a process which we’ve covered on this blog previously. The Arbuckle brothers are also attributed with creating the one-pound paper bag for their pre-roasted coffee, making their product even more accessible and economically successful. They used the coffee roaster invented by Jabez Burns which was the first of its kind, capable of releasing roasted beans automatically instead of manually, expediting the service. The Arbuckles were also responsible for creating the machine which would eventually pack and seal their one pound coffee bags, ridding them of the expensive need for workers and further increasing their production capabilities.

This is how people got their pre-roasted coffee at home; but, what of coffee shops or houses? According to Bruce Richardson, coffee houses predated tea in England, as “tea in London was first announced via a coffee house advertisement in the September 2, 1658 edition of The Gazette, a London weekly news pamphlet.” This means that coffee probably came over with the earliest settlers of the Colonies “as part of the household supplies…between 1660 and 1670,” he continues. It seems that coffee houses were closely associated in the main with pubs and inns, being served alongside alcohol, which was preferred by many to coffee at the time. Richardson writes that most of the coffee houses in the Colonies were in Boston, which was the cosmopolitan, “social center of New England.”

In fact, one Boston coffee house, existing from 1697 to 1832 “figured in practically all the important local and national events during its long career,” according to Richardson. The Green Dragon saw a variety of patrons, including British soldiers and 3ven some of those who conspired to enact the Boston Tea Party, inspiring Daniel Webster to call it the “headquarters of the Revolution.” It is considered a tavern and not a coffee house in the historic records I’ve looked at, but the other facts about it stand.

A Gathering of Coffee Cups

During this time, places like The Green Dragon and coffee houses were such centers of gathering, conspiring and so forth, to the point that in 1675 King Charles II called for “the suppression of coffee houses…for that in such houses…false, malicious, and scandalous reports are devised and spread abroad to the Defamation of His majesty’s Government,” though the rules didn’t last beyond January 8th of the next year due to protest. This type of gathering holds with the traditional depiction of European coffee houses, places where artists, elites, scholars and others gathered to stimulate their minds and bodies with caffeine and conversation. This tradition goes back to the beginning of coffee consumption, well before the New World that would be the United States was even a concept, let alone a fact of existence.

According to Crystal D’Costa, coffee was first brewed in around the 11th century and had become widely consumed in the Muslim world by about the 13th century. “Worshipers prized its stimulating properties because it allowed them to continue their devotions later, and coffee houses, which would become social and political centers, began to spring up,” with coffee not just consumed in the home, but also in these public spaces, the predecessor for Starbucks and all of our other coffee shops today. D’Costa continues, quoting from a National Georgraphic piece, that “the popularity of the coffee houses was unequaled and people frequented them for all kinds of social activity,” including live performances, chess and political discussions.

It was much the same when coffee came to Europe sometime in the 1600s. It didn’t take long for coffee houses to become “centers of social communication in the major cities of England, Austria, France, Germany, and Holland. This occurred with England becoming known for “penny universities” which referred to the price of a cup of coffee at one of these houses that also happened to come along with “stimulating conversation.”

Coffee House Politics

Many leaders, from the Arab world to the colonies, would attempt to quell coffee houses because of the types of stimulation they offered—both liquid and verbal—as illustrated by the above statement from the king. In fact, coffee houses led to the establishment of some major institutions, like the New York Stock Exchange. Tontine Coffee House was built in 1793 by a cohort of stockbrokers so that they could meet and discuss trade. The coffee shop became a busy center for stock buying, selling and trading, as well as other business transactions and even political ones. And, in fact, growing out of this coffee house was the New York Stok and Exchange Board, the direct predecessor to the current New York Stock Exchange, which is the largest in the world.

Democratizing the Coffee House

It was good ol’ Starbucks, most likely, that democratized the coffee houses a bit, taking them a notch or two away from elites-or-artists-only and bringing them into the world of the worker, productivity, and fast-food. Just before Starbucks was established in the 1970s, the coffee culture was entering the beginnings of the specialty or third-wave movement, with its focus on origins, roasts and ideal preparation. Continuing into today, there are two main types of coffee house: independent, hole-in-the-wall (though they can be massive stand-alone-buildings, too) or fast-paced, chain-linked Starbucks “rivals.” Coffee houses today are both embracing the freelance and technological surges occurring in the US and worldwide and pushing back against them in some instances, turning more toward formal and social aspects of coffee preparation and consumption. Whatever style it may adorn, the coffee house continues to be the place where someone can go and sit and (usually) not be rushed to leave. You can either socialize or work. Depending on spatial and sound provisions, you may continue to present live entertainment regularly, or as an event, as well as featuring the work of local artists and artisans, from bakers to potters. It’s the daytime, which presents a “sober” answer to the bar/club scene, whereby music doesn’t have to be overwhelming to conversation and productivity. Rest and rejuvenation can all be had in almost equal amounts as a boon to the patron looking to escape the hectic world outside.


Recommended Reading:

The History of Coffee Culture in America

The Changing Coffee Shop Culture.

How Cafe Culture Helped Make Good Ideas Happen



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