An Introduction to the Coffee-house: a discursive model
By Markman Ellis
A Coffee-House Conversation on the International Art World and its Exclusion, edited by Hatice Abdullah and Geoff Cox (London: Kahve-Society, 2002)
Introduction: That coffee and conversation go together is now a commonplace that does not need repeating. Advertisements for coffee underline the associations coffee has with thinking and with talking: a coffee break allows you to step back from your work and reflect on your progress or the lack of it, or again, coffee provides the occasion for friends to gather and conversation to begin. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that the practice of drinking coffee is of comparatively recent origin: it goes back only 350 years in Northern Europe, and only another century or so in Ottoman Istanbul. Before this time, coffee was unknown: neither ancient Rome nor the London of Shakespeare’s time had ever tasted the drink. The associations that we have of coffee and conversation are then distinctively modern.
Coffee-houses were unknown in Istanbul before the middle of the sixteenth century. According to the Turkish historian Ibrahim-I Peçevi, who wrote in about 1635, the first coffee house was opened by ‘two Men, nam’d Schems and Hekim, the one from Damascus, the other from Aleppo’ in the year 962 in the Islamic calendar (1554/55), during the reign of Soleyman the Magnificent [Süleyman I, 1520-1566]. As translated by the eighteenth-century English historian James Douglas, Peçevi states that their ‘Coffee-House’ was situated near the bustling kapan or mart near the port and the shops around the Rustem Pasa mosque, and was ‘furnish’d with very neat Couches and Carpets, on which they receiv’d their Company’. Schems and Hekem offered their coffee at ‘an easy Charge’: Peçevi reports that ‘a Dish of Coffee cost but an Aspre’, which Douglas reckoned was ‘not an Halfpenny of English Money’.
The first coffee-house in London opened just under a century later, in 1652, by a Greek Orthodox servant called Pasqua Rosee, in St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, in the centre of the financial district of the City of London. It was sponsored by merchants from the Levant Company, the trading house that organised and regulated trade with the Ottoman Empire. These merchants had become accustomed to drinking coffee during their extended residences in the Company ‘Factories’ in the ottoman cities of Istanbul, Izmir and Halep (or Constantinople, Smyrna and Aleppo as they knew them). The coffee-house found a ready public in the disputatious political climate of the English Commonwealth, and survived to prosper after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. By 1708, there were a very large number of coffee-houses in London and the provincial cities (as many as five or six hundred in London and Westminster alone). From the first, these early coffee houses were associated with a certain kind of social interaction — what sociologists might call a sociability — which they as businesses went out of their way to cultivate. The distinctive features of coffee-house sociability were egalitarianism, congeniality and conversation. Although there were important differences between the coffee-houses of Istanbul and London, there were also some intriguing similarities, including the manifestation of this distinctive sociability.