In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Coffeehouse

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Editions
  • 18th-Century History
  • History of Science
  • Business History
  • Specific Coffeehouses
  • 20th-Century Popular Culture
  • The Contemporary Coffeehouse
  • Slavery
  • Coffee as Commodity
  • Caffeine and Drugs

British and Irish Literature Coffeehouse
Markman Ellis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0013


The coffeehouse is an important and distinctive social and cultural institution deeply embedded in modern notions of public opinion and civil society. A coffeehouse is a business that sells prepared coffee as a hot beverage. After originating in the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, the first coffeehouses opened in Europe in the mid-17th century, in London first, and later in continental Europe and the American colonies. They quickly gained popularity through the peculiar flavor of the hot drink, with its habit-forming properties, but also through the distinctive sociability of the coffee room. This sociability was predicated on discussion and conversation on matters of political and cultural significance, and was supported by the provision of news and literary productions in both manuscript and print. Coffeehouses were recognized as centers of the new urbanism of the 18th and 19th centuries and were in this way associated especially with the Enlightenment and with political reform, although individual coffeehouses varied considerably in their philosophical and political allegiance. While in the Anglophone world coffeehouses lost some of their cultural significance in the 19th century, it was in this period that European iterations of the idea (in the café, caffè, or Kaffeehaus) gained special prominence. In the mid-20th century, the coffeehouse was self-consciously rehabilitated by the espresso bar trend, and it has found a new expression within postmodern culture in the much-noted ubiquity of anodyne branded coffeehouse chains.

General Overviews

Coffeehouse history is an unusually fertile topic that covers several centuries and addresses itself to a wide variety of historical approaches, according to whether the coffeehouse is considered as a philosophical concept, a business, or a social formation, and whether coffee is considered a beverage, a drug, or a commodity. The coffeehouse has been well served by historical overviews in the past century, so much so that certain received ideas have been extensively recycled, though without any real evidence offered to back them up. Two recent accounts, Ellis 2004 and Cowan 2005, offer the most up-to-date and fully researched account of the emergence of the coffeehouse in the 17th and 18th centuries. Earlier general accounts, such as Ellis 1956 and Ukers 1922, have been very influential, although limited in research quality. The role of the coffee industry in developing the market for coffee in the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in America, is covered by Pendergrast 1999. The 19th century, an often understudied period, is given solid coverage in Clayton 2003.

  • Clayton, Antony. London’s Coffee Houses: A Stimulating Story. London: Historical Publications, 2003.

    The best general account of the coffeehouse in London in the 19th and early 20th century, a period not much researched. Earlier periods are better served by Cowan 2005 and Ellis 2004.

  • Cowan, Brian. The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

    Powerful and original research, developed from a doctoral dissertation. Locates the emergence on the coffeehouse in Britain in the culture of the virtuosi, or scientists, in Restoration London, and traces a transformation in coffeehouse culture toward a more polite model after 1700.

  • Ellis, Aytoun. The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee-Houses. London: Secker & Warburg, 1956.

    Very influential account, although it is largely derived from Robinson 1893 (cited in 19th and Early 20th Centuries), and it repeats many factitious anecdotes. Contains an appendix with an unreliable anthology of coffee-related texts.

  • Ellis, Markman. The Coffee House: A Cultural History. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004.

    Cultural history of the coffeehouse from the early 17th to the 21st century. Strongest account of the Ottoman origins and the politics of the early English coffeehouse, with a focused interest on the representation of the coffeehouse in literature and culture.

  • Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

    Although rather sketchy on the early history of coffee, this provides detailed and original archival research on the growth of the coffee industry in North America from the 19th century on.

  • Ukers, William. All about Coffee. New York: Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, 1922.

    Written by a member of the coffee industry, this is has an encyclopedic but scatter-gun approach to the topic. Better on the organization of the coffee industry than on its historical origins.

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