April 15

GUEST CURATOR:  Kurt Falter

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Apr 15 - 4:15:1768 Massachusetts Gazette
Massachusetts Gazette (April 15, 1768).

“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.

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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.

November 6

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Nov 6 - 11:6:1767 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (November 6, 1767).

“Care will be taken to have all the English and American News Papers, Magazines, and political Pamphlets.”

In the fall of 1767 Robert Calder informed residents of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and its environs that “he has open’d a COFFEE HOUSE, opposite the South Side of the Reverend Mr. HAVEN’s Meeting House.” He catered to his clients, promising that he served the most popular beverages – coffee, tea, and chocolate – “in the best and most agreeable Manner.” Calder, “LATE FROM LONDON,” paid special attention to cultivating an ambiance of sophistication for his patrons. In his other line of work as a hairdresser for both ladies and gentlemen, he adhered to the “genteelest Fashions.” Those who visited his coffeehouse could expect the same atmosphere as they sipped their drinks and conversed with friends and acquaintances. After all, the proprietor promised that “every other Means [would be] assiduously pursued to give Satisfaction.”

Yet Calder’s coffeehouse was more than just a place to gather for pleasant conversation over a pot of a hot beverage on a brisk fall day. It was also a place where the public could keep themselves informed about events taking place in the colony and, especially, other colonies and other places throughout the Atlantic world and beyond. Calder announced, “Care will be taken to have all the English and American News Papers, Magazines, and political Pamphlets, as early as possible.” Even though the issue of the New-Hampshire Gazette that carried this advertisement included news from Boston, Newport, New York, London, and Algiers, publishers Daniel Fowle and Robert Fowle did not have sufficient space to reprint all the news from faraway places. The variety of newspapers available at Calder’s coffeehouse would allow colonists to keep up to date on current events, a prospect that likely loomed large considering that the Townshend Act was scheduled to go into effect in just two weeks. Realizing that prospective patrons wanted to keep informed, Calder provided magazines and political pamphlets as well. At his coffeehouse the public had access to printed materials that many colonists might not otherwise have had the means or the money to procure on their own.

In eighteenth-century America, coffeehouses were an important counterpart to printing shops that doubled as post offices. Both were places for disseminating and obtaining information via multiple media. Printers published and distributed the news, but coffeehouse proprietors facilitated delivering the news to even broader audiences. They offered an important service that benefited the civic life of their communities.

December 26

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

dec-26-12261766-new-hampshire-gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (December 26, 1766).

“CROWN (Coffee-House.)”

Isaac Williams launched a new venture for the new year, a “COFFEE-HOUSE, at the lower end of Queen Street, in Portsmouth,” New Hampshire. Based on the description of the Crown in his advertisement, Williams sought to operate an establishment similar to those in London, other cities throughout England and continental Europe, and major port cities in the North American colonies. The London Coffee House, for instance, opened in Philadelphia in 1754, a little over a decade earlier.

Eighteenth-century coffeehouses tended to be homosocial environments, gather places for men to conduct business, talk politics, socialize, and gossip. Williams invited “Gentlemen on Business” to visit his coffeehouse, noting that they would find there “the freshest Intelligence that is possible to be had.” The proprietor and staff likely provided some of this “Intelligence,” as did the array of patrons who assembled there, but a good amount of “the freshest Intelligence” probably derived from newspapers. In addition to the New-Hampshire Gazette, Williams likely supplied copies of major and minor newspapers from throughout the colonies as well a variety of publications from London and other parts of the Atlantic world.

Williams did not promote his coffeehouse merely as a place for merchants to negotiate deals and settle accounts. He also portrayed it as a destination for the “Entertainment” of his clients. Indeed, when the proprietor listed the reasons to visit his coffeehouse, the word “PLEASURE” appeared in capital letters, while “Business” did not. In addition to coffee, he served “PUNCH, WINE, BEER, &c. &c. &c.” Eighteenth-century patrons would have read “&c. &c. &.c” as “etc. etc. etc.” and imagined a variety of spirits. Williams catered to men looking to have a good time with friends, associates, and acquaintances.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, may not have been as big or as bustling as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Charleston in the 1760s, but it was a still a busy port city in its own right. Accordingly, local entrepreneurs launched businesses, such as the Crown Coffee House, that offered services and, more generally, experiences that paralleled those that could be found in larger cities.