How To Handle Yourself In An 17th-Century Coffee House

Some notes about the Coffee House, a private club : together with a list of resident and non-resident members : and including the rules of the Coffee House, rule six being that there shall be no rules. New-York Historical Society

Some notes about the Coffee House, a private club : together with a list of resident and non-resident members : and including the rules of the Coffee House, rule six being that there shall be no rules. New-York Historical Society

Are you guys watching Cosmos? I just caught up, and in the episode about Newton and Halley and how humans figured out the stars, Neil DeGrasse Tyson mentions how these young intellectuals often met in coffee-houses. He describes them as places where “a poor man need not give up his seat for a rich man.”

Coffee houses first appeared in cities like Istanbul and Damascus in the 1500s, and popped up in Europe in the 17th century. In the Middle East they had become popular places for political gatherings, but also for social and business causes. In 1883 the Coffee Public-House News published that in Turkey, “Coffee is consumed by all classes at all hours and on sorts of occasions. The little berry is indeed a very factor in Turkish society. Nothing is done without it–no business discussed, no contract made, no visits and civilities exchanged without the aromatic cup, and the accompanying chiboque or narghileh. If a purchaser enters a bazaar to purchase a shawl or a carpet, coffee is brought to him. If person calls at another house, coffee with the tobacco must greet the new comer. There can be no welcome without it, and none but words and forms of general etiquette take place until this article has been served all round. At parting, coffee must still be present, and speed the guest his way.”

Similar rules soon entered English society as coffee houses gained popularity in London. Tyson was correct that one of the main draws of the coffee house was that any man could enter and sit where he like, regardless of social status–as long as he could afford the one-penny fee of entrance, which generally meant the middle class were the “worst off” in any given room. Women, however, wouldn’t be caught dead in one, and according to Public Domain Review, “The fair sex lambasted the ‘Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE’ which, as they saw it, had reduced their virile industrious men into effeminate, babbling, French layabouts.”

Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society: With a Glance at Bad Habits by Charles William Day notes, “On entering a coffee house and sitting down take off your hat; it is only a proper mark of respect to your own class towards whom you should pay the same deference you exact from others.”

However, this social class free-for-all worried some.  In 1674 A Brief Description of the Excellent Vertues of that Sober and Wholesome Drink, Called Coffee was published, a broadside that extolled the benefits of coffee, especially in a culture where beer was the popular drink. But the other side of the broadside was the poem The Rules And Orders of the Coffee House, which included monetary penalties for rude behavior:


Enter, sirs, freely, but first, if you please,

Peruse our civil orders, which are these.

First, gentry, tradesmen, all are welcome hither,

And may without affront sit down together:

Pre-eminence of place none here should mind,

But take the next fit seat that he can find:

Nor need any, if finer persons come,

Rise up for to assign to them his room

To limit men’s expense, we think not fair,

But let him forfeit twelve-pence that shall swear:

He that shall any quarrel here begin,

Shall give each man a dish t’ atone the sin;

And so shall he, whose compliments extend

So far to drink in coffee to his friend;

Let noise of loud disputes be quite forborne,

Nor maudlin lovers here in corners mourn,

But all be brisk, and talk, but not too much;

On sacred things, let none presume to touch,

Nor profane Scripture, nor saucily wrong

Affairs of State with an irreverent tongue:

Let mirth be innocent, and each man see

That all his jests without reflection be;

To keep the house more quiet and from blame,

We banish hence cards, dice, and every game;

Nor can allow of wagers, that exceed.

Five shillings, which ofttimes do troubles breed;

Let all that’s lost or forfeited be spent

In such good liquor as the house cloth vent,

And customers endeavour, to their powers,

For to observe still, seasonable hours.

Lastly, let each man what he calls for pay,

And so you ‘re welcome to come every day.Rulesandorders_coffeehouse

Apparently this was hung on the walls of many an English coffee house. The Printers Devil says, “It is hard to gauge exactly how seriously one is supposed to take these ‘rules’; certainly, contemporary accounts make it clear that nearly all of these were, in practice, openly flouted by the patrons of such establishments. . .There is some evidence that this may represent something of the truth of the actual social mechanisms at work in coffee houses.” Similar to how many coffee shops may say “no laptops” but people just spend the whole time doing work on their tablets. Though really, if we could ban having to overhear the awkward first date conversations in coffee shops we would in a second.