What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“THE subscriber intends opening a COFFEE ROOM.”
Mary Hepburn placed an advertisement in the Georgia Gazette in the summer of 1767 to announce that she had entered the service and hospitality industry. She operated two related enterprises from her house, a coffee room and an ordinary. For each, she offered comparisons to similar establishments in larger cities – London and Charleston, respectively – to give readers and potential clients a frame of reference, yet also imbue her business with cosmopolitan flair.
The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that an eighteenth-century coffee room had a slightly different function than the more familiar coffeehouse. It describes a coffee room as “a public room where coffee and similar refreshments are served; now, generally, the name of the public dining-room in a hotel.” On the other hand, a coffeehouse was “a house of entertainment where coffee and other refreshments are supplied. (Much frequented in 17th and 18th c. for the purpose of political and literary conversation, circulation of news, etc.)” The OED adds an additional note that “[t]he places now so called have lost this character, and are simply refreshment-houses.” Coffeehouses had distinctive cultural functions in the early modern Atlantic world, but it does not appear that Hepburn attempted to operate that sort of establishment, at least not initially. Perhaps once she successfully established her coffee room she hoped to expand its offerings. At its initial launch, however, she limited it to breakfast alone. She did not advertise a gathering place for merchants and others to meet at all times throughout the day.
The OED also sheds light on what Hepburn and potential customers imagined when they thought of an ordinary: “an inn, public house, tavern, etc., where meals are provided at a fixed price; the room in such a building where this type of meal is provided.” (This meaning is now considered historical and archaic.) Hepburn did not, however, extend an open invitation to residents and visitors to Savannah to visit her ordinary to purchase meals. She restricted it to “eight Gentlemen” who would also board at her house for an extended period. She planned to open her coffee room immediately, but the ordinary was delayed until “the number of her boarders is compleated.”
Hepburn sold food and drink and provided lodging, yet she did not operate a tavern, an inn, or a coffeehouse. She sought to establish a different, yet related, kind of service in Savannah for select clientele, “the first attempt of this kind” in the city. If her efforts met with success, perhaps she considered expanding the scope of her enterprise, but she started on a smaller scale while she established her footing in the local marketplace.