Coffeehouses, Democracy and Furniture

Written by Lori Thiessen

When coffeehouses first started in 17th London they were a very different social place than anywhere else. The pub and the church were the main social spaces. These spaces were regulated very strictly, the upper class and lower classes had specific places. Now the squire or lord of the area share a bevvie with his tenants in the lower area of the pub, but chances are he’d rather meet with the other higher ups of the area in the upper rooms.

When the coffeehouse appeared, it was so new that nobody could work out how the social hierarchy should occupy the space. So everybody just mucked in. Lords and underlings rubbed elbows for the first time. The coffeehouse was the first place where equality and democracy was avidly talked about and practiced.

In fact, the coffeehouse was such a well-known place for discussing republican ideals that Charles the II tried shutting them down on suspicion of sedition. He didn’t succeed.

The furniture that was developed for the coffeehouse actually contributed greatly to bringing democracy to life in England. The pub had small tables and chairs, but some of the larger coffeehouses had long tables where you could sit wherever you liked. There was no such thing as reservations. It was first come, first serve. Shocking notions for 17th century England.

There was a debating club called The Rota, and it met at Turk’s Head Coffeehouse. A piece of furniture was designed for the members of this club. It was a U-shaped table so that the coffee boys could refill the cups of the membership with having to lean over them. Rather like a latter day version of King Arthur’s round table. The word-meisters among you will recognize that the word Rota is Latin for wheel which implies roundness, no one is higher than another, everyone taking his turn. Democratic ideas, indeed.

Mind you, the coffeehouse began as the place for the avant garde of 17th English aristocracy to show off their hip-ness to new trends. If you were a social climbing wanna-be, then you marched yourself over to the nearest coffeehouse to rub shoulders with these gatekeepers of style and influence. If you were happy to be a drunken yokel, then the local tavern was your hang-out.

When Starbucks began in the 1980’s, there was a certain cache value to patronizing this new, hip re-invention of the coffeehouse. Certain coffee shops attract a certain customer, for example a Tim Horton’s customer can be different to the kind of person who prefers a really funky independent coffee shop.

But discussions on all varieties of topics still take place at coffee shops, even political ones.

Q: Do you make judgments about a person’s station in life, attitudes, etc. based on the coffee shop they go to most often? Does it matter to you which coffee shop you frequent?

Until Next Time,

May your coffee always be freshly brewed!

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