Since the early 1500s coffee has been an international commodity, an elixir of energy, a catalyst of conversation and a driver of change. Its modern histories are often intertwined with the other stimulating substances of sugar and tea, making its colonial past as uncomfortable as it is illuminating.
There's been growing unease about the human impact of sugar and coffee production since as far back as the seventeenth century, and yet the unjust treatment of workers in the creation of this labour-intensive brew persists, even today.
To appreciate our approach to coffee in the present, it's key to understand the past, particularly how – and at what expense – this commodity grew to be such a powerhouse in Europe.
The history of coffee has been fraught with politics and abuse: from the exploitative plantations in the Caribbean that operated right up until the early nineteenth century, to the much-needed introduction of Fairtrade (in 1988) to guard against modern-day slavery.
When the drink first appeared in England in the mid-1600s it was a novelty, with little thought given to its origins or human cost. Herbal warmed drinks such as sage, mint and chamomile had been used medicinally for centuries and initially, coffee was likewise promoted as a herbal remedy and invigorating elixir.
The consumption of coffee went hand-in-hand with the proliferation of the coffee house, with hundreds of establishments springing up across England throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – although the main concentration of these was in London. These institutions offered a space for white men to debate and deliberate the topics of the day: from political scandals and current affairs to philosophy and advances in the natural sciences.
Like today, the coffee house was a place where people gathered to socialise, network and catch up on the news. The coffee itself became a catalyst to this conversation, it had become a symbol of enlightenment and reason, yet one almost completely isolated from its roots. So much so that when we look at images of eighteenth-century coffee houses, we don't see anything relating to its production, but instead a whitewashed vision of coffee consumption.
Coffee had become an icon of intellect and privilege, which had been distanced almost completely from the social and environmental ramifications of its popularity.
As a result, the prevailing representation of historical coffee in England is that of the coffee house. Coffee was a luxury product that occupied a white, masculine, public world in late Stuart and Georgian England and beyond. In contrast to the experience of the alehouse, the focus on this non-alcoholic drink encouraged sobriety and created an atmosphere in which it was possible to engage in more serious conversation.
The coffee houses were places for entertainment and industry, where knowledge was exchanged. They became known as the 'Penny Universities', because you could purchase admission to a coffee house and a cup of coffee for a penny – such as this example issued by Mansfields Coffee House in Shoe Lane, London, now in the British Museum's collection.
Because of this, historians often associate English coffee houses during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the Age of Enlightenment. Coffee was an industry elixir, the driving force behind the creation of many businesses and initiatives.
Several significant companies were founded in coffee houses, such as Lloyd's of London, which began as Edward Lloyd's coffee house on Tower Street around 1688 – and is still around today. They were also places to assemble and connect, as we see in the painting by Anna Katrina Zinkeisen, which depicts the first meeting of the Society of Arts at Rawthmell's Coffee House.
However coffee houses could also be places of ill repute, with Tom King's Coffee House in Covent Garden arguably having the worst reputation in London: with its patrons high on caffeine and booze, it was better known for fighting and fornicating than philosophy. As immortalised in this print from The Rake's Rendez-Vous by George Bickham the younger, it was a den of iniquity and loose morals, fuelled by a variety of strong brews...
Consequently, coffee houses were not considered a place for a lady who wished to preserve her respectability, and in general, coffee houses did not welcome women – unless they were sex workers. In this way, coffee continued to alienate and repress large parts of society.
In retaliation, the Women's Petition Against Coffee (1674) was started – not only to argue that coffee made men 'as unfruitful as the sandy deserts, from where that unhappy berry is said to be brought' but also to challenge the role of the coffee house as a place for men to waste their time and pontificate. It's argued that this petition was in fact set up as a form of repression itself – to curb the use of coffee houses as a place for political unrest to progress – but whatever the intention, it's clear that coffee was touching a nerve.
Fast-forward to over three hundred years later and it's interesting that the role of the coffee house has changed comparatively little. Coffee still dominates our public worlds of meetings and ideas. Whatever your choice of hot drink, the ritual pervades and coffee still leads the external hot drink market.
I think it's interesting that in lockdown, one of the things many people have craved is a coffee. Not for the flavour – because you can make a decent one at home – but more for the social ceremony and taste of normality.
There is still some way to go in making coffee production safe and fair for all, but if we commit to learning from the past, it is possible to taste a better future. I think we should lean into some aspects of coffee's history and embrace the contemporary coffee shop as a place of debate and discussion. But in the meantime, with lockdown still very much underway, turn your home into the kind of coffee shop you'd like to see: open dialogues, deliberate and take a long sip of the full-bodied, bittersweet present.
Tasha Marks, food historian, artist, and founder of AVM Curiosities