No one can deny the power of a cup of coffee, especially on lazy mornings with a whole day ahead. Coffee is the fuel of modern society, helping us fit more into our precious few hours than ever before. But this wasn’t always the case. The rise of coffee as an everyday staple can be traced back centuries, through revolutions, prohibitions, and the dawn of the Enlightenment.
The Industrial Revolution was a monumental shift in how we lived. People began moving away from farms to crowded cities where they worked 12-16 hours a day, almost every day of the week. Life suddenly sped up and we needed a way to catch up to it. Enter coffee, and human productivity skyrocketed, driving modernization across the globe.
What were we doing before coffee?
Life was very different before the Industrial Revolution. Workdays were regulated by natural light, with workers rising at dawn to tend to their tasks and retiring at dusk as the night settled in. The lack of electricity or adequate illumination limited the number of hours available for work. This all changed with the rise of the first factories, which coincided with the rise of coffee consumption across Europe.
Shorter working hours in the pre-Industrial Era meant there was no real need for something to keep us awake or help us power through long days. Most people drank alcohol throughout the day, in the same way we now drink coffee. Drinking water was unsanitary and alcohol like beer was refreshing and helped people cope with the physical hardship of most work at that time.
Wages were low, nutritious food was hard to come by, and the water was almost undrinkable. People, including children who often worked in mines and factories, relied heavily on beer in their diet. ‘Beer soup’ was even a popular breakfast. Unsurprisingly, no one could work like this for very long. As industrialization marched on, work hours became longer thanks to electrification, people moved to cities for urban jobs, and the 24-hour shift became a reality.
This drove the popularity of coffee as a stimulant to help people work longer, adjust to night shifts, and pursue more intellectual activities. The rise of coffeehouses proved to be fertile ground for artists, poets, politicians, revolutionaries, and even common factory workers.
Coffeehouses: From Revolution to Enlightenment
The very first coffeehouses date back to the Ottoman Empire. These coffeehouses served as egalitarian community gathering spaces, eroding centuries of societal divides. Much like the coffeehouses that would pop up in Europe, these Ottoman coffeehouses eventually came to be seen as breeding grounds for dissidents and revolutionaries. Various prohibitions on coffee were passed and repealed, but this didn’t halt the spread of coffeehouses to Europe.
The first coffeehouse in London opened in 1652. This caused major social upheaval: English society was hierarchical, and the coffeehouses, which had common tables, forced people to mingle across class divides.
More and more coffeehouses opened across London and major European cities. The communal tables were often covered with newspapers, prompting people to take an interest in public affairs and even participate in writing the news.
All this free speech proved too much for the British monarch Charles II, who passed a ban shutting down all coffeehouses in London. But it was all in vain - the ban only lasted 11 days before public demand reopened the coffeehouses.
Soon, coffeehouses began to find niches for themselves with certain coffeehouses being frequented by poets, while another might cater to scientists and so on. Sir Isaac Newton was a famous patron of the Grecian Coffee House near Fleet Street, where he once reportedly dissected a dolphin on a table.
Literary giants like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift were regulars at Will’s Coffee House. Some great modern institutions started as coffeehouses like Jonathan’s Coffee House in Exchange Alley, which would become the London Stock Exchange.
Across the Atlantic, coffee was emerging as a more patriotic choice over tea. In New York, Merchant's Coffee House was a common gathering spot for revolutionaries working to break away from the Crown. In the 1780s, this same coffeehouse would be the birthplace of the Bank of New York and the reorganization of the New York Chamber of Commerce.
A similar revolutionary fervor was stirring in the coffeehouses of Paris, where philosophers and Republican agitators would gather to plan their activities and promote the arts. Many great writers and thinkers were regulars at coffeehouses across the city that became venues for lively debate and artistic collaboration.
From the Ottoman Empire to our modern cafes, coffee has always been an agent of change. Coffee has helped us expand our intellectual pursuits, drive industrial growth, and simply gives us a chance to talk and learn more from others. The next revolution we see tied to coffee is within the industry itself. The coffee industry is pioneering research into mitigating climate change and pushing more traceability in the F&B market. No doubt, this won’t be the last great endeavor inspired by coffee.