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date: 18 April 2024

Coffeehouses and Cafes

Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment

Thomas Brennan

Coffeehouses and Cafes. 

From their origins in the mid-seventeenth century, the cafes and coffeehouses of Europe created a special social space that contributed to the dissemination of Enlightenment culture. Different from the traditional tavern, the cafes offered a range of new beverages—imports into Europe, the coffee, tea, and chocolate, which were noteworthy, above all, for being nonalcoholic—and a new social environment. Despite much debate about the effects of nonalcoholic drinks, variously described as calming, stimulating, eroticizing, emasculating, healthful, and poisonous, all agreed on their quality of maintaining sobriety. They quickly became a form of commentary on what elites were coming to see as the unrestrained, irrational, drunken culture of the popular classes. The cafes that spread rapidly through European cities in the second half of the seventeenth century emphasized their decorum and carefully distanced themselves from the rowdy, vulgar sociability of the tavern. The early English coffeehouses, which grew to number several thousand in London alone and dozens in most provincial cities, served nothing alcoholic and promoted themselves as temperance alternatives. They specifically banned the common pub practice of drinking healths, even with coffee. On the Continent, where a dozen cafes could be found in most cities (and Paris claimed several hundred) they also served a wide range of exotic alcohols, many of them based on the growing popularity of spirits, as well as expensive wines from distant countries. Many cafes adopted a decor that was deliberately more luxurious than taverns, with much use of mirrors, marble, and expensive furniture, to suggest the elegance and semi-public domesticity of the salon.

A Middle-Class Clientele

Cafes and coffeehouses also managed to attract a different, more middle-class clientele than that of the traditional tavern. Taverns were increasingly scorned as the haunts of the disreputable populace and, more importantly, the stage of a popular culture from which refined society was withdrawing. Cafes alone offered a public sociability that was open yet respectable. Their customers on the Continent, until late in the eighteenth century, were that amalgam of elite and middle class known as honnêtes gens. English coffeehouses may have had a broader clientele; some sources insist on the wide social range of people to be found there, but most focus on a similarly literate and gentle patronage. The customers were overwhelmingly—and in Germany perhaps exclusively—male, and everywhere cafes were uniquely urban, for they depended on the middle class that was rapidly growing within cities. If an artisan entered a cafe—but the glazier Ménétra mentioned only one such visit among hundreds of references to drinking in taverns—he would find a sociability unlike that of the tavern. For the point of cafe society was conversation, the polite but pointed discussion of ideas, news, and literature that marked an important stage in the spread of civility. The growing social, commercial, and political importance of the social groups that made up the cafe's clientele combined with their avid examination of all kinds of issues in a public forum to create a new political force called public opinion.

A recent generation of historians writing about the Enlightenment has drawn its inspiration from the work of Jürgen Habermas, whose Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere argued that bourgeois civil society emerged in the eighteenth century with the growth of a self-conscious and critical public. As literate private persons increasingly exchanged their ideas about a wide range of public issues, from economic matters on to literary, cultural and political topics, in a public and often published forum, they created a self-conscious identity and culture—a “bourgeois public sphere”—that gradually rose up to challenge the traditional public sphere of the court and the government. Habermas pointed particularly to the role of coffeehouses in England and Germany as the locus of much of this communication, in the form of both conversation and publication. Coffeehouses had become “centers of criticism” where public opinion was both created and recorded.

The Public Sphere

The essence of the coffeehouse's claim to have acted as midwife to the early stages of the public sphere rests on its public discussion of the news. News about many issues, of a religious, literary, philosophical, but particularly of a political nature, circulated feverishly in coffeehouses. People went to coffeehouses as they had once gone to the ancient forum, to talk and listen, to inform themselves and to debate ideas. The coffeehouse also became a kind of reading room, where one could find and read newspapers. The public discussion, and sometimes public reading, of newspapers made up a large component of coffeehouse sociability. Some German coffeehouses advertised the names of journals they carried, and contemporary descriptions spoke of the range of newspapers, both printed and in manuscript, available for customers and of the discussions that surrounded them. Germans went for “good conversation, constructive and learned,” according to an encyclopedia of the time. “One discusses,” says another, “private and public affairs, of finance, literature, commerce, court cases.” Already identified as an “exchange for political ideas” in the 1740s, the Austrian Kaffeehaus invited growing police surveillance under Joseph II. English commentators compared coffeehouses favorably with the Parliament for the quality of the debate, but the overtly political nature of so much news led Charles II to close all coffeehouses in 1675 on the charge of breeding sedition. The protests from all sides of the political spectrum persuaded him to reverse the decision in less than two weeks. Yet historians confirm the monarch's fears by finding evidence of political “parties” forming in coffeehouses during his reign. Political “clubs” continued to meet in coffeehouses through the next century. Clearly the clientele of coffeehouses consisted of the social classes that took an active role in politics.

Coffeehouse conversation transcended politics, however. Some of the most famous English coffeehouses, Will's or Button's for example, hosted groups of authors dedicated to discussing literature. Writers like Dryden, Walpole, Swift, and Defoe turned chosen coffeehouses into a kind of salon. Other groups assembled there for commercial or simply social reasons. Lloyd's coffeehouse, like Jonathan's and Garraway's, began as a place for merchants and stockbrokers to gather to conduct business, turning their tables into unofficial offices. Groups of Freemasons meeting in various coffeehouses turned them into unofficial lodges, and the flourishing world of voluntary associations owed much to the space of coffeehouses. The interior space of coffeehouses, usually supplying an upstairs room if the main room was not sufficiently exclusive, evidently lent itself to this kind of informal colonization by their patrons. Many cafes on the Continent could also be identified by their “differentiated clienteles,” which included literary and commercial societies. Some French cafes showed a sophisticated marketing sense by further distinguishing themselves through the entertainment they offered. Such quasi-private gatherings in public places helped create a public sphere by uniting like-minded people and joining them to larger communities of discourse.

For Habermas, the “decisive mark [of the new public sphere] was the printed word,” and the coffeehouse was intimately associated with the production of early newspapers. The English were precocious in the creation of newsletters in the late seventeenth century that addressed a range of political, commercial, and cultural topics. Many publications, of which Steele's and Addison's Tatler and Spectator are only the most famous, were written in coffeehouses and purported to set down the talk currently heard in them. The discussions of literature, morals, ideas, and politics held in coffeehouses became the essence of news. Another newsletter, the Guardian, invited readers to leave letters at its coffeehouse-headquarters, which it would “digest for the use of the publick.” Of course, Lloyd's News printed the gossip and information about the maritime world that Edward Lloyd had gathered in his coffeehouse. By the early eighteenth century, the “Coffee House Masters” were even proposing that they be given a monopoly on producing a newspaper, the Coffee-house Gazette, which would be written by the customers at different coffeehouses on slates that would be picked up twice a day. The consumption and discussion of newspapers led in turn to the articulation of public opinion that became the subject of fresh newspapers.

Although the French could claim cafes with a brilliant literary and commercial clientele, there were fewer cafes than in England and they achieved a more limited role in public life. The cafes Procope, Laurent, and de la Régence, for example, received many of the philosophes, and the cafes Hardy and du Caveau hosted stockbrokers and businessmen. Yet the aristocratic hôtels and salons of the capital dominated the intellectual life of this society for much of the century. For Robert Darnton, the cafe symbolizes the low Enlightenment of “Grub Street,” which was “as far removed from le monde [the high Enlightenment] as was the cafe from the salon.” He contrasts the exclusiveness and refinement of the salon with the openness and disreputable clientele of the cafe. Daniel Roche adds to the contrast by distinguishing the female arbiter of the salon from the “exclusively male” cafe. Neither characterization of Parisian cafes is completely accurate, since their clientele tended to be noticeably more middle class than that of the tavern until late in the century, and women were not absent. Yet the salon was distinctly more elite and more private than the cafe, which allowed for greater freedom of expression. As a result, the public sphere in France has traditionally been associated not with cafes but with salons.

The French Public Sphere

More recent work on France has been far more interested in the low Enlightenment and various manifestations of public opinion outside of the salons. Here the cafe's role is more prominent. There is evidence that news circulated through the cafes of Paris as rapidly as in London and that primitive journalists, nouvellistes, made the rounds of cafes to hear and record what was being discussed. Because the French lacked the right to discuss or write about politics openly, however, the evidence for much of this news comes from the archives of the Bastille and police reports where, for example, Darnton has been able to find a record of “179 conversations in 29 cafes between 1726 and 1729” that ranged from mild interest in, to mild criticism of, the king's personal life. The discussion of news that was politically sensitive, which included religion, the economy, and much else of public life, was fundamentally clandestine, and so French cafes were slow to develop the mechanisms and sense of identity that turned public opinion into a public sphere.

At the same time, news of other kinds was prevalent and also legitimate. Literature and art offered topics of heated debate that violated no royal restrictions. Thomas Crow has argued that the public discussions of cultural news qualified as a first step in the creation of a French public sphere. Yet French censorship inhibited the regular production, dissemination, or recording of news after the fashion of the English. The closest the French came to newspapers, the libelles and nouvelles à la main, circulated clandestinely and in manuscript until possible foreign publication as a book. Nor did French cafes retail published newspapers in the way that English coffeehouses did. Despite the occasional reference to cafes providing newspapers for their patrons, recent work on the French press is skeptical that cafes did so regularly and points instead to other venues, the salons or the private reading rooms, cabinets de lectures, as the place to find newspapers. The impediments to the circulation and discussion of news in a public forum limited the cafe's cultural role.

The situation of the press, and much else, would change at the end of the old regime in France. In the last decades before the Revolution, dozens of journals were published, and public opinion became increasingly and more openly critical of the political regime. Cafes became places to read and discuss newspapers, places where the hacks of Grub Street gave the Enlightenment a truly revolutionary edge. Then cafes became the centers of the revolutionary fervor so nicely illustrated by Camille Desmoulins’ famous call to arms from atop a cafe table.

[See also Civil Society; Clubs and Societies; and Habermas, Jürgen.]


Bödeker, Hans Erich. Le café allemand au XVIIIe siècle: Une forme de sociabilité éclairée. Revue d'histoire moderne et contemporaine 37 (1990), 571–588. Excellent introduction and one of the more sophisticated contributions to the topic.Find this resource:

Brennan, Thomas. Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris. Princeton, N.J., 1988. More on taverns than on cafes, but sensitive to the sociological differences.Find this resource:

Darnton, Robert. An Early Information Society: News and the Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris. American Historical Review 105 (2000), 1–35. Only the most recent of Darnton's many important contributions to the subject.Find this resource:

Ellis, Aytoun. The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee-Houses. London, 1956. Still the best overview of its subject, with a wealth of material though an outdated interpretive framework.Find this resource:

Habermas, Jürgen. Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Translated by Thomas Burger. Cambridge, Mass., 1989. A path-breaking, though increasingly contested, model for understanding the Enlightenment.Find this resource:

Klein, Lawrence E. Coffeehouse Civility, 1660–1714: An Aspect of Post-courtly Culture in England. Huntington Library Quarterly 59 (1997), 30–51. Good illustration of the impact of Habermas on contemporary work.Find this resource:

Thomas Brennan