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How coffeehouses changed the world

A coffeehouse in late 17th-century London. The British Museum

The “original social network” – before Facebook or Twitter or any of the others – was the humble coffeehouse, says Jeremy Cliffe in The New Statesman. Introduced to Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, these bustling institutions quickly became “centres of exchange, information and debate”. Some were industry hangouts: lawyers, printers, merchants and insurers each had their favourite haunt in 18th-century London. A few morphed into much bigger enterprises – the London Stock Exchange and Lloyd’s of London both began as coffeehouses. Later came the “magnificent kaffeehäuser of continental Europe” – Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Budapest. And all these places shared one key trait: they were “open and democratic”, welcoming anyone who could “pay the price of a coffee”.

Literary appreciations of the coffeehouse “span its history”. The diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of his “great pleasure” in the “diversity of company and discourse”. American writer George Steiner called it a place “for intellectual debate and gossip, for the flâneur and the poet or metaphysician at his notebook”. Sometimes this debate proved historically consequential: the American Revolution emerged from the swirling “resentments at British rule” in New York’s Merchants’ Coffee House; the French Revolution from Paris’s Café de Foy, where the lawyer Camille Desmoulins fired up the patrons to march on the Bastille. But for the most part, they were civil establishments. “First, gentry, tradesmen, all are welcome hither / And may without affront sit down together,” wrote 1670s London coffeehouse proprietor Paul Greenwood. “He that shall any quarrel here begin / Shall give each man a dish t’atone the sin.” Perhaps social media should adopt a similar system.

😠⌨️ Critics’ grumblings about coffeehouses – that they were “time-wasting, seditious, boastful, unmanly, mob-minded and intellectually unserious” – are almost indistinguishable from our anxieties about social media today. In a warning that could easily apply to the political “echo-chambers” on Twitter, the satirist Jonathan Swift cautioned against mistaking “the echo of a London coffeehouse for the voice of a kingdom”.