Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Coffee Houses in 17C colonial America

The instituion of London's popular coffee houses quickly crossed the Atlantic to the British American colonies.  A French traveller to London in 1668 named Henri Misson gave this description of the early coffee house, "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”"

1674 London Coffee House

It seems that the first to bring a knowledge of coffee to the settlers of colonial British North America was Captain John Smith, who founded the Colony of Virginia at Jamestown in 1607. Captain Smith became familiar with coffee in his travels in Turkey.

New York's First Coffee House

Although the Dutch also had early knowledge of coffee, there is no written evidence that the Dutch West India Company brought any of it to the first permanent settlement on Manhattan Island (1624). Nor is there any record of coffee in the cargo records of the Mayflower (1620), although it included a wooden mortar & pestle, later used to make "coffee powder."

The earliest known reference to coffee in America is 1668, at which time a beverage made from the roasted beans, & flavored with sugar or honey, & cinnamon, was being drunk in New York.  Coffee first appears in the official records of the New England colony in 1670. In 1683, the year following William Penn's settlement on the Delaware, he is buying supplies of coffee in the New York market & paying for them at the rate of 18 shillings & 9 pence per pound

A racy view of the coffee house. The Rake’s Rendezvous; Or The Midnight Revels.  The various Humours of Tom Kings Coffee House in Covent Garden. William Hogarth (British painter & printmaker, 1697-1764) Four Seasons

Some researchers of New York's early days feel that the first coffee house in America was opened in New York; but the earliest authenticated record they have presented is that on November 1, 1696, John Hutchins bought a lot on Broadway, between Trinity churchyard & what is now Cedar Street.  There Hutchins built a house he used as a coffee house, eventually called King's Arms.

Later dubbed the King's Arms house was built of wood, & had a front of yellow brick, said to have been brought from Holland. The building was 2 stories high, & on the roof was an "observatory," arranged with seats, commanding a fine view of the bay, the river, & the city. Here the coffee-house visitors frequently sat in the afternoons.  It stood for many years on Broadway, opposite Bowling Green, becoming known in 1763 as the King's Arms, & later the Atlantic Garden House.

Garden facade of King's Arms near Trinity Church, on Broadway in NYC.

The sides of the main room on the lower floor at the King's Arms were lined with booths, which, for the sake of greater privacy, were screened with green curtains. There a patron could sip his coffee, or a more stimulating drink, meet with others to discuss news, or just relax & read his mail.  The rooms on the 2nd floor were used for special meetings of merchants, colonial magistrates & overseers, or similar public & private business.  These meeting rooms seem to have been one of the chief features distinguishing a coffee house from a tavern. Although both types of houses had rooms for guests, & served meals, the coffee house was used more often for business purposes by permanent customers, while the tavern was patronized more by revellers & transients. Men met at the coffee house daily to carry on business, & went to the tavern for convivial purposes or lodgings. Before the front door hung the sign of "the lion & the unicorn fighting for the crown."

For many years the King's Arms seems to have been the only coffee house in New York City; or at least no other seems of sufficient importance to have been mentioned as a coffee house in colonial records. For this reason it was more frequently designated as "the" coffee house than the King's Arms.

 Coffee Houses in Early Boston

Many women owned coffee houses, which traditionally had been frequented by men.  Dorothy Jones had been issued a license to sell coffee in Boston in 1670. “Mrs. Dorothy Jones, the wife of Mr. Morgan Jones, is approved of to keepe a house of publique Entertainment for the selling of Coffee & Chochaletto.” The last renewal of Mrs. Jones's license was in April 1674, at which time she was accorded the additional privilege of selling "cider & wine." Her husband Morgan Jones was a minister & schoolmaster who moved from colony to colony frequently, leaving Dorothy Jones to make her own way financially for herself & their family.

After the Welsh gentlewoman Jones opened her 1670 Boston coffee & chocolate establishment, the next colonial coffee house may have been in Maryland. In St. Mary's City, Maryland, the 1698 will of Garrett Van Sweringen, bequeaths to his son, Joseph, "ye Council Rooms and Coffee House and land thereto belonging," which Van Sweringen had opened in 1677.

Ned Ward, The Coffee House Mob, frontispiece to Part IV of Vulgus Britannicus, or the British Hudibras (London, 1710)

Soon coffee houses, patterned after English & Continental prototypes, were established in the colonies, quickly becoming centers of social, political & business interactions. Among the earlist were London Coffee House in Boston, in 1689; the King's Arms in New York in 1696; and Coffee House in Philadelphia in 1700.

1664 wood cut of English coffee house

The name coffee house did not come into use in New England, until late in the 17th century. The London Coffee House & the Gutteridge Coffee House were among the 1st opened in Boston. The latter stood on the north side of State Street, between Exchange & Washington Streets.  Robert Gutteridge took out an innkeeper's license in 1691. Twenty-seven years later, his widow, Mary Gutteridge, petitioned the town for a renewal of her late husband's permit to keep a public coffee house.

Boston's British Coffee House, whose named changed during the boiling pre-Revolutionary period, also appeared about the time Gutteridge took out his license. It stood on the site that is now 66 State Street, and became one of the most widely known coffee houses in colonial New England.

In the last quarter of the 17th century, quite a number of taverns and inns sprang up in Boston. Among the most notable were the King's Head (1691), at the corner of Fleet & North Streets; the Indian Queen (1673), on a passageway leading from Washington Street to Hawley Street; the Sun (1690-1902), in Faneuil Hall Square; & the Green Dragon, which became one of the most celebrated coffee house & taverns, serving ale, beer, coffee, tea, and more ardent spirits. In the colonies, there was not always a clear distinction between a coffee house & a tavern.

Boston's Green Dragon

The Green Dragon stood on Union Street, in the heart of the town's business center, for 135 years, from 1697 to 1832, figuring in most important local & national events during its long career. In the words of Daniel Webster (1782-1852), this famous coffee-house tavern was dubbed the "headquarters of the Revolution." John Adams, James Otis, & Paul Revere met there to discuss securing freedom for the American colonies. The old tavern was a two-storied brick structure with a sharply pitched roof. Over its entrance hung a sign bearing the figure of a green dragon.

See William Harrison Ukers (1873-1945) All About Coffee published by The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1922

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