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The Revolutionary Legacy of Coffeehouses: Brewing Ideas and Movements

Step into a coffeehouse, and step into a world of intrigue, innovation, and intellectual exchange. Throughout history, these humble establishments have served as epicenters of social and intellectual movements, sparking discussions that have shaped our world. Join us on a journey through time as we explore the fascinating power of the unassuming “café” or coffeehouse.

1. Ottoman Empire: The Coffeehouse Revolution

Our journey begins in the Ottoman Empire, where coffeehouses were born. These establishments emerged as a refuge for people to gather, socialize, and exchange ideas. With liquor and bars inaccessible to most practicing Muslims, coffeehouses offered an alternative space for communal bonding. Coffee’s affordability and inclusive structure, where anyone could partake, challenged centuries-old social norms. However, not everyone embraced this change.

In 1633, Sultan Murad IV took a radical step by decreeing the consumption of coffee as a capital offense. Fueled by personal vendettas and concerns about janissaries who frequented cafes (units known for their influence), the sultan went to extreme lengths. He even disguised himself as a commoner and decapitated coffee drinkers with his hundred-pound broadsword. As coffeehouses continued to thrive, Ottoman rulers intermittently issued bans well into the 18th century to suppress gatherings of dissidents. But by then, coffeehouses had already spread to Europe, evoking fear among monarchs.

2. English Coffee Houses: Equality and News

Our next stop is 17th-century London, where Pasqua Rosée opened the first coffeehouse in 1652, igniting a societal revolution. In a hierarchical culture, the notion of sitting next to equals was radical. Coffeehouses introduced communal tables adorned with newspapers and pamphlets, becoming hubs for consuming, discussing, and even writing the news. These establishments played a pivotal role in driving the news industry in 18th-century London.

Yet, King Charles II, wary of gatherings discussing politics, attempted to suppress the coffeehouse phenomenon. In 1672, he issued a proclamation to restrain “false news” and ordered the closure of all London coffeehouses. However, this ban lasted just 11 days, as the people’s desire for coffee and open discussion prevailed.

3. Enlightenment in ‘Penny Universities’

From London, we journey to Oxford during the Enlightenment era. Here, coffeehouses earned the moniker “penny universities” because, for the price of a cup of coffee, one could engage in intellectual discussions and sober debates—an invaluable commodity in a time when beer often trumped water as the safer option.

Coffeehouses attracted diverse clienteles, such as the Grecian Coffee House, a meeting place for Whigs and members of the Royal Society like Isaac Newton. Poets like John Dryden and Alexander Pope held court at Will’s Coffee House. Stockbrokers gathered at Jonathan’s Coffee House, birthing the London Stock Exchange, while Lloyd’s Coffee House gave rise to the Lloyd’s of London insurance market. Coffee’s influence spread as travelers returned home, caffeine-fueled and eager for conversation.

4. Frederick the Great’s Coffee Battle

Our journey takes us to Germany in the late 18th century, where Frederick the Great vehemently opposed coffee. He attempted to ban it in 1777 in favor of beer, employing “sniffers” to detect contraband coffee roasters on the streets. His disdain for coffee was recorded in a letter, where he advocated for returning to the healthier beverage of beer.

The ban persisted until Frederick’s death, and coffee culture continued to thrive.

5. Coffee and the American Revolution

In the American colonies, coffee emerged as a patriotic drink after the Boston Tea Party. Taverns began serving coffee alongside liquor, and the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston became known as the “Headquarters of the Revolution.” New York’s Merchant’s Coffee House played a role in the creation of the Bank of New York and the reorganization of the New York Chamber of Commerce. Even Benjamin Franklin wrote satirical pieces from the Smyrna Coffee House in London, critiquing British rule.

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6. Paris Cafés: Revolution and Intellectual Exchange

Our final destination is Paris, where cafés served as breeding grounds for Republican agitation during the French Revolution. These establishments, with their social egalitarianism, hosted meetings and discussions that fueled the winds of change. Post-revolution, Parisian café culture once again became a hub for writers and thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, where ideas were exchanged and philosophies were crafted.

From the Ottoman Empire to England, the United States to France, coffeehouses have been catalysts for conversations, debates, and the birth of new ideas. They continue to be the meeting places where the world’s most profound revolutions and intellectual movements are sparked and nurtured.

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