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.

Etiquette For Kids…From 1530

Kids! They’re always fidgeting and yawning and being unhygienic, and this was as true 500 years ago as it is now. In 1530, Erasmus published the educational treatise On Good Manners For Boys, which may be the earliest example of an etiquette book out there. Dedicated to the 11-year-old Henry of Veere, it outlines some good manners, though he insists that Henry doesn’t even need such a book, “having been, in the first place, brought up from infancy at court.” If only we were all so lucky. He goes on to describe how “the task of fashioning the young is made of many parts,” and I assumed he was talking about collecting legs and eyes and teeth to build an army of youths. Really, he means the task consists of teaching piety, a love for liberal arts, giving instruction on the duties of life, and teaching good manners. So, how do you do that? Erasmus explains.

“For the well ordered mind of a boy to be universally manifested—and it is most strongly manifested in the face—the eyes should be calm, respectful, and steady: not grim, which is a mark of truculence; not greedy, the hallmark of insolence; not darting and rolling, a feature of insanity; not furtive, like those suspects and plotters of treachery…”

This goes on for another paragraph, which is just to say you should be constantly aware of your eyes. What are your eyes doing right now? Are they grim? Are they truculent? Stop that.

“It is bad manners to look at someone with one eye open and one shut. For what else is this than to deprive oneself of an eye?”

It is literally nothing else, Erasmus. Do not wink at me.

“The eyebrows should be smooth, not contracted, which denotes fierceness; not arched, a sign of arrogance…”

He goes on like this nearly as long as he did about the eyes themselves. Following this he finally gets to the etiquette of the nostrils, the mouth, and how you’re cheating if you use blush because a natural modesty should be giving your cheeks that glow. You’d think that Erasmus would have the most polite face, given that he knows all the rules, but I don’t know…


That mouth looks pretty tight set, Are you “afraid of inhaling someone else’s breath”?

“To expose, save for natural reasons, the parts of the body which nature has invested with modesty ought to be far removed from the conduct of a gentleman. I will go further: when necessity compels such action, it should be none the less done with decency and modesty even if there is no observer present. For the angels, from whom derives that most welcome sense of shame that accompanies and protects the chastity of boys, are always near.”

Are you saying the angels don’t want to see my butt? I’m pretty sure they want to see my butt. What else are they doing all day?

“There are some who lay down the rule that a boy should refrain from breaking wind by constricting his buttocks. But it is no part of good manners to bring illness upon yourself while striving to appear ‘polite.'”

I love old science, and the idea that holding in a fart could cause you illness. He later says that it is more dangerous to hold in a fart than it is to hold in a bowel movement, which is bananas. Try to do both of those today and see which is worse. Anyway, he does say that if you must break wind, cover it with a cough. Slick.

Finally, Erasmus gets to the bottom of the body, discussing whether or not one should cross one’s legs like an Italian. Now, we move on to dressing.

“To drag long trains after one is ridiculous in women, reprehensible in men; whether becoming in cardinals or bishops I leave others to judge.”

I had no idea cardinals or bishops could be “becoming.” But thankfully I’ve also learned from Erasmus that wearing multicolored or embroidered clothing is for “idiots and apes.” Dude is bitchy. He also reserves an entire section on behavior in church, including this gem.

“Touching the ground with one knee while the other is upright supporting the left elbow is the gesture of the impious soldiers who addressed the Lord Jesus in mockery, ‘Hail King of the Jews!'”


Erasmus addresses banquet and bedtime manners, but in the end comes up with the cardinal rule of etiquette itself. “The essence of good manners consists in freely pardoning the shortcomings of others although nowhere falling short yourself: in holding a companion no less dear because his standards are less exacting.” May we all strive to be better ourselves and more forgiving of others. And to let each other fart in public.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: Bundling

Bundling is another fun and folksy tradition that seems pretty strange today.

Bundling: because people have different mating practices than pigeons.
By Aomorikuma (あおもりくま) (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

The basic idea is: a boy and a girl like each other and want to get to know each other better. However everyone lives in tiny houses with tons of people so there is no privacy. Also it’s winter and the house is cold. So what do you do? You throw those two crazy kids into bed with a board between them for propriety’s sake and let them chat all night. (It also helped to conserve candles and firewood- practical!)

An alternate version was tying each person up in a sack to their necks so that no hanky panky could happen.

How well the practice actually worked at upholding good American morals is anyone’s guess- Washington Irving noted “that wherever the practice of bundling prevailed, there was an amazing number of sturdy brats born” so maybe it didn’t work so well after all.

There were even popular songs about it:

Nature’s request is, give me rest,

Our bodies seek repose;

Night is the time, and ’tis no crime

To bundle in our cloths.

Since in a bed, a man and maid

May bundle and be chaste;

It doth no good to burn up wood

It is a needless waste.

Let coat and shift be turned adrift,

And breeches take their flight,

An honest man and virgin can

Lie quiet all the night.

It seems to have been most common in colonial America and had pretty much died out everywhere by the 20th century, after being practiced by the Amish for some time beyond everyone else.

It seems like a kind of warm and cozy first date- maybe I will add it to my OkCupid profile. What do you think, would you like to bundle up with someone this winter?


You can read a LENGTHY 1930’s treatise on the practice here if you are interested.


Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Do That Anymore: Turning Of The Tables

You will never be this fancy. (Via)

You will never be this fancy. (Via)

I think we can all agree that being that one person left out of a conversation at the dinner table is really uncomfortable. It’s happened to me plenty of times when I’ve tried to jump into conversations happening to my right or my left, and, after a few unsuccessful attempts, retreated back to my wine. This is nothing I get too frustrated at, but it can be stressful.

You know what’s more stressful, though? Appointed conversational start and end times with assigned partners. Which is what we had to apparently do at formal dinners in the 1920s. It was called the “turning of the table” and it sounds awful. Emily Post writes:

“The turning of the table is accomplished by the hostess, who merely turns from the gentleman (on her left probably) with whom she has been talking through the soup and the fish course, to the one on her right. As she turns, the lady to whom the ‘right’ gentleman has been talking, turns to the gentleman further on, and in a moment everyone at table is talking to a new neighbor.”

That’s right, some time before the fish you are required to stop talking to the person which whom you’d been talking, and start talking to someone else. God forbid you try to talk to someone across the table, or with more than one person, etc. A few people have made the argument that elaborate centerpieces at formal dinners 100 years ago often made speaking to the person across from you impossible. However, elaborate formal place settings would probably make the person next to you equally distant. I imagine people communicated solely by the tones you make when you rub the rim of your crystal water glass.

We’ve mentioned before that the point of etiquette is making people feel comfortable, which this definitely tries to accomplish. It’s a good idea to make sure everyone has someone to talk to! You don’t want your guests to feel lonely! But this is an example of when slavish devotion to a rule (Emily Post called this an “inexorable rule”) obstructs the actual idea behind it. For example, this is what is recommended if a guest is so engaged in conversation that they do not want to switch partners:

“At this point the hostess has to come to the rescue by attracting the blocking lady’s attention and saying, “Sally, you cannot talk to Professor Bugge any longer! Mr. Smith has been trying his best to attract your attention.” “Sally” being in this way brought awake, is obliged to pay attention to Mr. Smith, and Professor Bugge, little as he may feel inclined, must turn his attention to the other side. To persist in carrying on their own conversation at the expense of others, would be inexcusably rude, not only to their hostess but to every one present.”

Oh, and do you hate the person sitting next to you? Too bad. You’re encouraged to do something like recite the times tables to each other to make it look like you’re talking.

I hate rude people as much as the next person (maybe more, since I co-founded a website about etiquette), but publicly shaming your dinner guests seems a little extreme. Granted, we live in a time where it is highly unlikely that you’ll be dining this formally, and the prevalence of circular tables at fancy occasions makes various triangulations of conversation much easier. So let’s toast to the fact that, no matter where we eat, we can generally converse with whom we want, and about more interesting topics than the times tables.

Come see Jaya speak more on this topic at TED-y Talks next Tuesday at the Branded Saloon in Brooklyn. Facebook event with time and address here!

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