We tend to think of popular coffeehouses like Starbucks as contemporary phenomena, but, in fact, the world has enjoyed them for centuries. Starting in Ethiopia in the 9th Century, they became extraordinarily popular in England by the 19th Century. Already, by 1675, in England there were 3,000 coffeehouses.
Popular all over Europe, they served a similar purpose as they do today. They were not only centers for relaxing, but also for discussing business and politics for many, as well as for discussing aesthetics by artists and poets.
In England, because political unrest seemed to be generated in coffeehouses, Charles II tried to suppress them with no luck. More important than politics was engaging in business deals in coffeehouses. For example, Jonathan’s Coffee House, which opened in 1698, evolved into the London Stock Exchange. While women were banned from coffeehouses in England and France, they regularly frequented coffeehouses in Germany.
In the United States, the first coffeehouse opened in Boston in 1676. In the 1780s the Bank of New York and the New York Chamber of Commerce both evolved out of the same coffeehouse. By the 1800s, the consumption of coffee became more popular than tea in the United States. Prior to that, tea was king!
While American coffeehouses had the approval of the churches, bars and other places selling alcoholic beverages did not. No doubt that helped the popularity of coffee.
Of course, we’re talking about cities here, like London, Paris, New York, etc. What about coffee consumption in small American towns and rural communities?
Back in the 1940s, in small rural towns, like Dime Box and East Bernard, there were no coffeehouses (though East Bernard now has one). But there was usually a central place where men, and sometimes women, gathered to have coffee and conversation, both casual and business.
In Dime Box, there was a back room in Millie’s Grocery Store, one of the two grocery stores in town, where women gathered around a large coffee pot to talk about things that mattered to their lives. In East Bernard, folks (mostly men) gathered at the home of a prominent business woman, Mrs. Means, for cups of coffee and community problems to solve.
In other rural towns, men met at a local gas station and sat around the wood heater on which was a giant pot of coffee. In a sense, these were coffeehouses, too.
During World War II, I’m not sure what happened in city coffeehouses where coffee became scarce, rationed, and at times unavailable to obtain, but in grocery store back rooms, gas stations, and private homes, coffee grounds had to be mixed with chicory to make it go farther. And when coffee was not available, they had to brew up a pot of Postum, an awful-tasting substitute. What was worse, it was not caffeinated.
Today there are about 16,000 Starbucks in U.S. cities. There are other chains, too, such as Dunkin’ Donuts (now just Dunkin’), Stumptown, Caribou Coffee, etc., and many small independent coffeehouses.
Rural communities today have either an independent coffeehouse, or, still, in some cases, chairs circling a pot of coffee in a gas station, feed store, etc., where folks gather for coffee and conversation.
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired WCJC teacher, a retired LCMS pastor. And author of three books, It Must Be the Noodles, Open Prairies, and Tanka Schoen.