GUEST CURATOR: Kurt Falter
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A few Cask choice Jamaica Sugar & Coffee.”
It is without question that coffee is far more popular drink in the United States than tea, but this was not always the case. During the colonial period, tea was the more preferred caffeine-oriented commodity due to its easy preparation, yet this is not to say that the coffee industry was absent from American culture at the time. Colonists imported some of their coffee from Jamaica, but it was never indigenous to that island; instead, in 1728 Sir Nicholas Lawes brought it over from Haiti. Jamaica’s warm climate made coffee cultivation plentiful and profitable. Approximately 12 million pounds of coffee was exported during the colonial era, making the Jamaican trade one of the largest providers of coffee to the British Empire. Unlike the roasted coffee beans or grinds sold today, usually only the recently picked and pre-roasted coffee beans were sold in colonial America, meaning that the purchaser would have to the roasting, grinding and brewing themselves.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Coffee, tea, and chocolate comprised a trio of exotic hot beverages popular in colonial America. Many colonists drank these beverages at home, but men also gathered in public venues to consume them together. As Kurt notes, tea became the most popular of those drinks – and arguably the most emblematic of the early American experience – but the venues that served them were known as coffeehouses. Like many other aspects of English culture, colonists transported the concept of the coffeehouse across the Atlantic.
Men gathered in coffeehouses for a variety of purposes. Some conducted business at these establishments. Merchants and other traders met to make deals and settle accounts over a hot cup of coffee. Both New York and Philadelphia had a Merchants’ Coffee House prior to the American Revolution, the name suggesting the type of clientele each sought to attract. Customers also gathered to discuss news and politics. To that end, the proprietors provided several amenities, especially newspapers and pamphlets for their clients to peruse. In addition to local newspapers, they also subscribed to publications from other cities, broadening the array of sources available to their patrons. News concerning politics spread as men in coffeehouses read newspapers from near and far, often aloud to their companions, and then discussed current events and editorial pieces, including the “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania” that circulated in the wake of the Townshend Act. Merchants also visited coffeehouses to consult newspapers in hopes that the information they contained would guide them in making sound business decisions.
Yet men met at coffeehouses for reasons other than business and politics. Coffeehouses were centers of sociability. Customers gathered to converse with one another. As much as many of them liked to think of their discussions with friends and acquaintances as enlightened exchanges, they also tended to engage in gossip as well. Women were excluded from coffeehouses, from conducting business, from discussing politics, from conversations that took place there, but that did not mean that one of the vices most frequently attributed to women – gossip – was absent from those homosocial spaces. Men managed to trade stories, both fanciful and snide, without the influence of women, though they liked to pretend otherwise.
Coffee was more than a commodity sold for consumption within the household in eighteenth-century America. Colonists also gathered in public spaces to drink this hot beverage together as they conducted business, debated politics, and socialized. Like taverns, coffeehouses were important venues for exchanging information and ideas and, in turn, shaping American commerce and politics, in the era of the imperial crisis and the American Revolution.