This display examines an early 18th century English silver coffeepot in the cultural context of coffee consumption. Drinking coffee was central to the intellectual and social life of cities as far from each other in space and mentality as London and Isfahan in modern Iran. Coffeehouse culture in these two cities during the 17th and 18th centuries are used as brief case studies to reveal the social power of coffee and the practice of debate and camaraderie that it engendered.
This display was researched and prepared by Maryam Ala Amjadi, a doctoral candidate in the School of English jointly at the University of Kent in Canterbury and the Universidad do Porto, Portugal.
From East to West
Although knowledge of coffee drinking came through travellers’ accounts of the coffeehouses of Ottoman Constantinople, Aleppo and Baghdad and Safavid Isfahan from the late 16th century onwards, the first coffeehouses in Europe were those opened in Oxford and London in the early 1650s.
Pasqua Rosee’s coffeehouse at St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill in the city of London was opened in about 1652 through the agency of his employer, a merchant of the English Levant Company, Daniel Edwards. Both Edwards, who imported the raw material into London, and Rosee, his servant, had firsthand experience of coffee culture in the Ottoman trading city of Smyrna (modern Izmir) and their coffeehouse sought to commercialise and replicate it in the mercantile centre of London.
The association of coffee with the Ottoman Empire predominated in the visual culture surrounding coffee for many years. Early coffeehouses in England were decorated with a painted representation of the turbaned head of a Turkish man at the entrance.
As was the practice in the East, coffee had to be drunk very hot. This was a novelty in Europe which created the need for new equipment and wares for coffee drinking and preparation. The first coffeepots in England were made of tin or copper and imitated the look of Turkish pots with their high domed conical lids.
While plain coffeepots were used in public coffeehouses, silver coffeepots like this one were prized possessions in the home, brought out to display the taste and wealth of their owners. This coffeepot was designed and made by Augustin Courtauld (1685/6-1751), a craftsman from the Protestant community of Huguenots who fled religious persecution in France and established themselves in London in the late 1600s.
Coffee in Isfahan
Coffee (qahvah, in Arabic and Persian, kahve in Turkish) was a major agricultural product of Yemen and Arabia, which found new markets after their conquest by the Ottomans in the early 16th century. Through contact and trade with its eastern neighbours, coffee was exported from Ottoman lands to modern Iran (Persia), becoming well established there by the end of the century.
By the end of the 16th century, coffeehouses were a vital aspect of the Safavid dynasty’s capital Isfahan in modern Iran. The major coffeehouses of Isfahan were situated in its main square, Maydan-e Naqsh-e Jahan, at the entrance to the city’s famous bazaar.
Inside the Coffeehouses
The coffeehouses in Isfahan’s main square or maydan were situated next to each other. Large carpeted rooms opened onto the busy square. Customers would sit or recline directly on the carpets while being served coffee and smoking water-pipes.
Storytelling and performance of folktales and religious accounts were regular activities of the coffeehouse. Safavid coffeehouses were also central in shaping the poetry culture of the age. People would often visit coffeehouses to listen to poetry and poets in debate. Artists brought drawings to show and discuss in coffeehouses, sometimes as payment for their drinks or in exchange for a poem. Travelling dervishes (mystics) and mullahs (preachers) made regular appearances in coffeehouses.
The sound of water from the fountains ran in the background to conversations, storytelling and poetry recitations and was overlaid by the bubbly sound of the water-pipe. The Safavid ruler Shah Abbas I (reigned from 1588 to 1629) engaged in conversation with poets at the ‘Arab’ and ‘Haji-Yusef’ coffeehouses in Isfahan. He occasionally entertained foreign delegates to his court at these coffeehouses, which were decorated specially for royal receptions. The court itself employed a person known as qahvahchi-bashi whose sole responsibility was to oversee the elaborate preparation of coffee and herbal drinks for the royal court.
Georgian London's Coffeehouses
The 17th and 18th century coffeehouse was a hub of intellectual and social engagement, where people of relatively diverse social backgrounds could read newspapers, debate and comment on world events, where tradesmen made business deals and where travellers exchanged bits of news. All this is suggested in the Rules and Orders of the Coffee-house, which was published in 1674:
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…
Coffeehouses were known as ‘penny universities’ because customers, including students, artists, writers, merchants and businessmen, were charged a penny as an entrance fee, which covered the drink, newspapers, pamphlets and the latest news and gossip.
Some of the greatest English writers of the 18th century, including John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson were frequent clients of coffeehouses and their presence attracted customers.
Coffeehouses had vocal supporters and detractors, and numerous pamphlets were published either condemning the drink – for example claiming it caused impotence – or praising its restorative virtues. Satirists criticized the kinds of conversations occurring in coffeehouses: gabbling, gossiping, wheedling and idleness were four attributes thought to be engendered by drinking coffee. Coffeehouses were also, more seriously, potential breeding grounds for political rebellion, where the “seeds of sedition” (A Character of Coffee and Coffee-Houses, published in 1661) were planted. Charles II famously tried to stifle their potential for dissent by issuing a ban on coffeehouses in 1675. The ban was lifted shortly after huge public protests.