Fall 2002

The Devil’s Ordinary

Consuming public culture in the coffee-house

Markman Ellis

A new Starbucks is being fitted out across the road. The windows of the half-completed shell have been covered in giant posters that, in letters nearly a foot high, promise what might be expected from this Starbucks experience: “taste,” “comfort,” and “relax”—all coming soon. In many places, these benefits have already arrived, for, as is universally acknowledged, Starbucks is everywhere. From the first outlet in Seattle in 1971, there are now more than 4,500, distributed all over the developed and developing world. The first non-American location was Tokyo in 1996. They arrived in England in May 1998 when Starbucks Coffee International purchased the 98 outlets of a local imitator, the Seattle Coffee Company. But even in its mature urban markets, the feeling that you are never far from a Starbucks is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back a few years into the mid-1990s. And while coffee, and coffee-houses, have been around for much longer, the practice of drinking coffee is of comparatively recent origin in Western Europe. Although it is hard to imagine a life without coffee, the fact is Shakespeare never drank coffee.

Coffee was one of a series of exciting new stimulants discovered by Europe in the early seventeeth century, along with tea, chocolate, and tobacco. European travelers and­ merchants first observed coffee among the Turks in the late sixteenth century. As Ottoman authorities report, the drink had spread from Yemen in the first decades of the sixteenth century, spreading along the routes of trade and pilgrimage. Prosperous coffee-houses soon flourished in the major cities of the Ottoman empire. The first coffee-house in Christendom was opened in London in 1652, by a Greek, Pasqua Rosee, who had learned to prepare the beverage as a clerk in the Turkish trading port of Smyrna (Izmir), while in the employ of an English merchant. His coffee-house, in St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, was located in the center of the financial district of the City of London, and his first clientele were merchants of the Levant Company, the trading house that organized and regulated trade with the Ottoman Empire. In the tumultuous political climate of the English Revolution, the coffee-house found a ready public—perhaps because for Puritans coffee-drinking evaded prohibitions against drunkenness. After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, coffee-houses prospered, so that by the dawn of the eighteenth century there were as many as five or six hundred in London. This was a remarkable concentration; even Starbucks now has only 170-odd locations in London. Other cities in Europe soon established coffee-houses on London’s model: the first in Paris opened in 1674 and in Vienna in 1683, although the beverage was certainly consumed before that in private. But it was London that became famous for its coffee-houses, despite being vastly out-numbered by pubs, taverns, and gin-shops. The Prussian nobleman Baron Carl Ludwig von Pöllnitz, 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.”[1] In 1698, a French traveler to London remarked that the “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.”[2] As these men suggest, the early coffee- house was associated with a certain kind of social interaction—what sociologists call a sociability—of which the distinctive feature was an egalitarian and congenial mode of conversation. This model of sociable interaction has been, since the eighteenth century, central to theories about the city and public culture, but also about our knowledge about the modern individual, drawing on the perception that through knowing each other, people know themselves.

The CoffeeHous Mob, an 1710 engraving that serves as the frontispiece to Part 4 of Vulgus Britannicus, or the British Hudibras by Ned Ward.

Surviving images of the coffee-houses of eighteenth-century London attest to a considerable curiosity about how customers engaged sociably with each other. The engraved frontispiece entitled The CoffeHous Mob, affixed to Ned Ward’s satire on London politics, Vulgus Britannicus, or the British Hudibras (1710), delineates the space of the coffee-house. Seated around long trestle tables, a variety of men have assembled in the candle-lit room of a genteel coffee-house, hung with landscape paintings. They are variously occupied: some are busy with reading the little diurnals or newspapers of the day, while some are or have been smoking long clay pipes of tobacco. But two activities dominate: conversation (or debate) and coffee-drinking. Although the customers at the rear table have managed to ignore it, a vociferous dispute has broken out between two men, one of whom has been caught here in the moment of throwing a dish of coffee over another (quarrelling over the controversies and scandals of sectarian and factional differences, as Ward’s verses explain). Around them, almost oblivious to their disagreeable customers, the waiters or coffee-boys serve coffee, spectacularly pouring the black liquid into the dishes from their tall, conical coffee-pots. Further pots of coffee stew on the hearth in front of a raging fire, over which hangs a kettle of hot water. Coffee was notorious for its bitter and burnt flavors, for neither sugar nor milk was added. Many commentators believed that coffee was a conspiracy to defraud gullible drinkers with a dish of hot water flavored with nothing more than “Old Crusts, and Shreds of Leather burnt and beaten to a powder,” as one satirist suggested.[3] In the corner, behind a little bar, sits the proprietor or manager of the house: a woman wearing a stiff head-dress and a long white shawl. The coffee-woman—a typical sight in most coffee-houses—not only took care of the daily operation of the business, but entertained her clientele with her conversation. The characteristic feature of the coffee-house was its ability to support and nurture a variety of different discourses: while some men haggled over prices of trading goods, others might discuss church politics, and others could share the gossip and scandal of the day with the coffee-woman. In this way, the space of the coffee-house confirmed and established the central activity of discussion, conversation, and talk. Nonetheless, the limitations of this debate were earnestly felt: although women were not formally excluded from the coffee-house, the kind of masculine sociability encountered there placed such locations outside their regular round of entertainments.

Despite such notable exclusions, nostalgia for the first era of the coffee-house, when the conversation flowed brightly, has continued unabated. In the twentieth century, the coffee-house has repeatedly been accorded a principal role in the history of public culture—especially in the origin of rational public debate. Post-war sociologists and political philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas, Peter Stallybrass, Richard Sennett, and Terry Eagleton have identified the social life of the coffee-house in the early eighteenth century as the crucial birthplace of public opinion in Western civil society. Here they locate the emergence of the sense of responsibility that the state and its institutions owe the great mass of the people. The German philosopher Habermas, in his early work on the historical foundations of civil society called The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (written in 1962 but not translated into English until 1989) proposed that this period saw the emergence of a series of innovative spaces where the urban public could come together in a state of equality.[4] The English coffee-house is his primary example, although he also notes the salons of ancien régime France and the dining clubs of Germany. In such spaces a new sense of the public began to take shape through the characteristic social encounters they encouraged. Individuals came together in a space that was both intimate and private, but also accessible to a wide range of people. In the coffee-house, social hierarchy was dissolved. “A Coffee-house is free to all Comers,” observed one satirist in 1661. “Here is no respect of persons. Boldly therefore let any person, who comes to drink Coffee sit down in the very Chair for here a Seat is to be given to no man.”[5] The “public sphere,” as Habermas comes to call it, emerges in this liminal zone between the private and the public. Almost as if forced by proximity, the coffee-house encourages people to participate in what Habermas calls rational and critical discussion, refined and augmented by the journalistic press, circulating libraries, and the post office. It is not an accident that daily newspapers and coffee-houses come into existence at the same time: both specialized in the circulation of gossip, market prices, and news.

Coffee itself has a role in this sociable commerce. To the medical pharmacopoeia of the seventeenth century, coffee was an enigma. Coffee was often compared to opium (a drug recently discovered in and imported from the Levant). But where opium had the effect of chilling the animal spirits, and thus “procuring sleep,” coffee—at least by the 1660s—was recognized as being, in the words of the English physician Thomas Willis, “highly efficacious for the driving away the Narcosis or stupifyingness.”[6] These wakeful properties, another early scientist observed, were the reason that those who “would study by Night do then drink thereof.”[7] So whilst the importation and retailing of coffee had quickly became a profitable line of trade, coffee itself was good for business, as it kept its customers awake, talking, and trading. But others declared this had deleterious effects, as the coffee-house had the effect of turning normally taciturn businessmen into loquacious gossips. In The Women’s Petition Against Coffee (1674) the men of the coffee-house “out-babble an equal number of [women] at a Gossipping, talking all at once in Confusion, and running from point to point … insensibly, and … swiftly.”[8] Coffee gained a reputation for emasculating its drinkers, rendering them, as Willis said, “lean, and oftentimes paralytick and obnoxious to an impotency to Venus.”[9] One anonymous satirist depicted a London “maiden” who declared that rather than give herself up to a man who drinks coffee, she may as well “wrap my Maiden-head in my smock, and fling it into the Ocean to be bugger’d to death by young Lobsters.” It is no wonder that the coffee-house was known as “the Devil’s Ordinary.”[10]

In the eighteenth century, the coffee-house was imagined as the place where self-fashioning social transformations might occur. In the essays of Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele, the coffee-house was the key site in the transformation in public culture. In The Spectator no. 49 (1711), Steele argued that the coffee-house was the natural home of his project for the polite reform of public culture. He looked forward to the day when “Men who have Business or good Sense in their Faces … come to the Coffee-house either to transact Affairs or enjoy Conversation.” Identifying such men as the best of men and the rightful inhabitants of the coffee-house, Steele envisions that the coffee-house will become the “Place of Rendezvous to all … thus turned to relish calm and ordinary Life.”[11] In The Spectator, the coffee-house is at the center of their revolution in habits and manners, the place where transgressive and disruptive qualities are scoured from the crowd. Habermas’s account, developing The Spectator argument, focuses on the coffee-house’s egalitarian accessibility, in which individuals come together without hierarchy in an equality of debate, and through their discussions, such individuals come to form a new public culture. In this account, then, the coffee-house sociability achieves a crucial advance by encouraging rational public debate on topics that matter between persons of different social status and wealth. The public sphere, then, cannot simply be equated with an architectural space or social institution like a coffee-house, but functions as a normative ideal to which all people might aspire, even if their attendance was disallowed or precluded by distance, inclination, or social mores. Satirists complained frequently that conversations in the coffee-house were anything but rational and critical. As the satiric treatise A Character of Coffee and Coffee-Houses (1661) observed, “A Coffee-house, like Logick the Lawyer, will maintain any Cause. Infinite are the Contests, irreconcilable the Differences here.”[12] Through their discussions, whether tittle-tattle and gossip or serious debate on constitutional affairs, Habermas suggests, individuals are lead to the formulation of a rational, consensual sense of judgment, so that they might judge the effect of actions or opinions on their own private interests but also the public good. Having learned to make such judgments in the coffee-house by reading the stale narratives of the latest romance fictions or discussing the petty corruptions of local parish authorities, Habermas imagines the coffee-house habitué also learning to make judgments and voice opinions about politics and affairs of state.

The sociability of the modern coffee-house has cut its links with the vengeful, transgressive crowd on the verge of insurrection. It is not simply that the mob is excluded by the anodyne luxury of the corporate coffee-house, but that this is a sociability designed to reform the mob into a more tranquil, even docile, crowd of consumers. Perhaps this is why Starbucks attracts the anger of anti-capitalist protestors. Starbucks is repeatedly attacked in Naomi Klein’s No Logo for its monopolistic practices, such as swamping a locality with clusters of outlets until independent competition is driven under.[13] Despite its claims to be an ethical company (“coffee that cares”), Starbucks was ransacked by the mob (a rainbow alliance of anarchists, unionists, and environmentalists) in the anti-globalization protests in Seattle in November 1999 that focused on the World Trade Organization’s annual convention. Since then, Starbucks has been a regular focus for activists. Yet the heritage of the coffee-house was in fomenting these kinds of resistance and reform: in the early eighteenth century, the coffee-house was the home of the mob or crowd, as “The CoffeHous Mob” illustrates. Coffee-houses had retained the aura of refractory fanaticism cultivated in the English Revolution, when republican plotters had commandeered coffee-house debates. In the 1670s, government spies opined that the uncontrolled and unlimited nature of their conversation, and their encouragement of egalitarian social mixing, made coffee-houses into treacherous nests of troublemaking and subversion. The satiric A Character of Coffee and Coffee-House (1661) observed that many believed “that a Coffee-house is dangerous to the Government, that seeds of Sedition are here sown, & Principles of Liberty insinuated.”[14]

In the modern age, the function of the coffee-house, according to the community-values theorist Ray Oldenburg, is to offer a “third place” between home and work where people may meet as equals on neutral ground, where conversation may flourish, individuals may acquire the social polish gained by association with others, and society may reap the benefits of such collective reasoning.[15] Howard Shultz, the CEO of Starbucks, cites Oldenburg’s book as an important influence on his vision. The growth in the market for coffee products in the 1990s, analysts argue, was achieved by changing coffee’s appeal to customers, rather than changing the coffee itself. Financial advisers agree that “the long-term growth of coffee-bars is in the sociability market.”[16] Starbucks calls this the “Starbucks Experience,” which aims to fashion an emotional contact with customers. As Shultz says, Starbucks gives people “the romance of the coffee experience” and a “feeling of warmth and community.”[17]

As the corporate literature of Starbucks (flyers, web-sites, annual reports) makes ample use of terms like “coffee-house” and even “café culture,” it might be profitable to speculate about how Starbucks shapes the sociable experience in the model of its eighteenth-century precursors. A high regard for coffee connoisseurship shapes Starbucks’s claims to be a coffee business: they dwell on their environmentally responsible bean sourcing, their commitment to high bean quality, and their excellence in roasting and beverage preparation. The claims that Starbucks makes that they serve “rich-brewed Italian-style espresso beverages” may or may not be borne out by their predilection for milky, sweetened, and flavored confections. Nonetheless, although the company proclaims its business is coffee, it might be better thought of as a retailer of sociability. Whilst it is undoubtedly held in place through elaborate financial arrangements of franchises and partnerships, Starbucks is a specialist in building and maintaining spaces which entice large numbers of customers on repeat visits to drink coffee and socialize. Klein argues that all Starbucks are “clones” of each other, complying with the logic of the chain, so that each store is the same, even when it must be different to fit the space it rents and the locality it serves. In each location, the corporation constructs the store from an assembly kit of prefabricated parts (not just decoration, furniture, and machines, but also financial systems and management guidelines controlling everything from prices to the barista’s welcoming smile). I have been to nothing like a representative selection of Starbucks around the world (imagine the Starbucks drone who has been to all 4709 locations, not including the new one across the road). Nonetheless, one can imagine a globalized reading of the Starbucks outlet, looking first for the ubiquitous signs of the corporation (from the physical properties of seating and equipment, to the visual identity created by logo, labels, and trademarked terminology, and on to the more fleeting sense of look and feel) and then later for the peculiar, the particular, and the local. This is a game which might be played in any of the 24 national “markets” they operate in. I’m convinced, but it is only my opinion, that in England, Starbucks is shinier, more light-filled, and more metallic—a kind of comfortable American modernism—whereas the wood-effect organic feel of Californian outlets sells a combination of earthy colors and the recondite aura of coffee connoisseurship as a crypto-European sophistication.

“Taste, comfort, relax,” the posters on the new outlet across the road promised. The Starbucks sociability is shaped by these concerns. The concern for comfort is literalized in the provision of sofas and relaxing seating. The Starbucks coffee lingo (grandé, skinny, latté, decaff, frappuccino, and so on) demonstrates the return customer’s sense of belonging. The intellectual weight of the space is furnished by the sale of a proprietary board game called Cranium. In the end, the single most plangent signal of the Starbucks coffee-house is the coffee itself. The customer’s endless variation of specifications reinforces the individualism of the experience. Unlike the bitter beverage of the eighteenth century (“Syrrop of Soot, or Essence of old Shooes”), Starbucks offers coffee from the land of milk and honey: vast concoctions of milk, cream, and Torriani syrups. Starbucks’s penchant for lacto-coffee symbolically exemplifies the warm, mammalian calm of their reformed coffee house. In the sociability of Starbucks, an atomized society finds a convenient representation of the city of individuals. This sociability is not collective and public but is rather about being alone together, about fragmenting public discourse into non-organized entities, about consuming rather than debating. In the lactification of the coffee-house, the historically-enduring semiotics of coffee, redolent of conspiracy and conversation, is usurped by the infantilizing comfort of the semiotics of milk.­­

  1. The Memoirs of Charles Lewis, Baron de Pöllnitz, 2 vols. (London: Daniel Browne, 1737), vol. 2, pp. 462-63.
  2. Henri Misson de Valberg, trans. Ozell, Memoirs and Observations in his Travels over England (London: D. Browne et al., 1719), pp. 39-40.
  3. Bollicosgo Armuthaz [pseud.], The Coffee-Man’s Granado Discharged Upon the Maiden’s Complaint Against Coffee (London: J. Johnson, 1663), p. 4.
  4. Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge: Polity, 1992).
  5. M. P. [Mercurius Publicus], A Character of Coffee and Coffee-Houses (London: John Starkey, 1661), pp. 1, 5-6.
  6. Thomas Willis, Pharmaceutice Rationalis: Or, The Operations of Medicines in Humane Bodies (London: Thomas Dring, Charles Harper, and John Leigh, 1679), p. 154.
  7. John Chamberlayn, The Manner of Making Coffee (London: William Crook, 1685), p. 19.
  8. The Women’s Petition Against Coffee (London: n. p., 1674), p. 4.
  9. Willis, p. 155.
  10. Mercurius Democritus, The Maiden’s Complaint Against Coffee (London: J. Jones, 1663), p. 5.
  11. Richard Steele, The Spectator, no. 49 (Thursday, 26 April 1711).
  12. M. P., p. 7
  13. Naomi Klein, No Logo (London: Flamingo, 2000), pp. 134-39.
  14. M. P., p. 8.
  15. Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place (New York: Marlowe & Co, 1989).
  16. Scheherazade Daneshkhu, “Coffee Bean Counters,” Financial Times, 16 September 1997, p. 16.
  17. Howard Shultz, Pour Your Heart into It (New York: Hyperion, 1997).

Markman Ellis lives in London, where he is writing a cultural history of the coffee-house.

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