Coffee: The Basis of Western Civilization

Every morning during the work week, I drop in at a French pâtisserie chain on my way to the office.  Being a creature of habit, when the staff see me coming in, they simply turn and start making my drink without even having to ask what I will have.  We exchange pleasantries, money is exchanged for good and service, and then I leave.  By the time I get to work, the coffee is finished, and I am ready to begin my day.

This is a scenario familiar to most of us.  What we often do not stop to think about however, is how this ritual is a far, far lesser version of what the ritual of drinking coffee used to be.  Neither, I suspect, do we stop to think about how much our modern civilization owes to the habit of coffee drinking. Let’s consider just two examples.

In the Western world, coffee developed its own set of rules and paraphernalia, in much the same way that similar expensive, imported beverages like tea or hot chocolate did.  Grand coffee service sets were manufactured by the great porcelain manufacturers in places like Limoges and Dresden, so that the well-to-do could enjoy the expensive beverage in style.  If you were well-off, or aspired to be, you wanted a coffee service, and there were plenty of businesses more than happy to provide you with that product, at whatever price point you could afford.

The notion of drinking coffee in a paper cup with a plastic lid would have been anathema to the people who treated it with respect, for coffee was viewed as something special.  It was savored for its unique flavor, rather than simply gulped down as a commonplace thing.  Serving coffee was a way for families and friends to spend time together in conversation, without suffering from the intoxicating effects of alcohol.  Then as now, the caffeine jolt put people in a better, more chatty mood, and the connections made over the coffee ritual kept polite society going.

Those who could not enjoy coffee at home were able to experience the emergence of coffee houses in Vienna, Paris, Rome, and elsewhere, in imitation of those found in places like Istanbul.  These cafes had a powerful effect on the development of Western economics, politics, and culture, which many of us may not think about when we pop into one of them for a pick-me-up.  They served as locations where people gathered to discuss and share ideas, debate the news of the day, and conduct business, again without risk of becoming intoxicated.  And because there was no distinction made between rich and poor, aristocrat and peasant, they allowed people from different strata of society to meet and get to know one another, in ways which they normally would not and could not.

For example, the modern stock market, as we understand it today, came about through the drinking of coffee.  London stockbrokers in the 17th and 18th centuries were considered too ungentlemanly to engage in business transactions inside the Royal Exchange, the Elizabethan-era market hall for manufacturers and merchants.  Barred from getting involved in trading on the Exchange themselves, these middlemen would gather in the coffeehouses around the building, to make deals with each other on behalf of their clients.

Gradually, these early caffeine fiends began buying and selling shares, commodities, and securities on a larger and larger scale.  Eventually they took over what had been the functions of the Royal Exchange, and created the London Stock Exchange, from which all modern stock markets (arguably) descend.  The principles adopted through trial, error, and debate in coffeehouse culture came to define how a large segment of the financial world operated.  Thus, the practical applications of capitalism in the marketplace, and the wide variety of consumer goods those of us in the West enjoy today are due, in no small part. to coffee.

So the next time you ask for your Americano with an extra shot to go, and slip on that cardboard drink sleeve, take a moment to think about what the ritual of coffee drinking once was, and what it brought about.  That bitter beverage played a tremendous role in the development of the civilization in which you happen to live.  While perhaps we cannot go back, on a practical level, to the days of treating coffee with the finesse which our forefathers did, we can at least remember to appreciate it just a bit more, every now and then.

Detail of a Meissen coffee pot (c. 1730-1735) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Detail of a Meissen coffee pot (c. 1730-1735)
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
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13 thoughts on “Coffee: The Basis of Western Civilization

  1. Yeah coffee is the great equalizer. Saw this first hand when I worked for the railroad. When I was out in the field on a cold winter day, it was common for track-hands, surveyors, management and engineers (me – civil not train driving ones) to be found huddled around a burning 55 gallon drum fire, coffee in hands, joking about the day ahead. At that moment there was no union, no management, no blue collar and no white collar. Just people with their coffee trying to stay warm.

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  2. You didn’t mention the other role of London coffee-houses, William: ‘[…] Charles II later tried to suppress the London coffeehouses as “places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers”, ‘ (Wiki). Excellent post, thank you.

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  3. I’ll never forget my initiation into the Boston dialect… when a darling neighbor invited this newcomer to her home to meet some other neighbors. She said, “Pat, I’m having a coffee on Thursday morning and I’d like you and the kids to come.” “A coffee” was her lingo for not just enjoying the beverage, but the very act of getting together. Great post!

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  4. Fabulous post! Studying Viennese history was my first introduction to the revolutionary Third Space of Coffee Houses and their influences on culture and social intercourse. Ever since I have been enamoured with the romantic and multifaceted narrative they helped to write. Thanks for shining your light on this delightful topic. @psabh

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  5. Marvellous post as is so often the case on this site. This was interesting and informed. The real sadness though in our modern habit of grabbing a coffee on the way to work is the disrespect is shows for the growers, pickers and roasters. Some backbreaking and poorly paid labour has gone into making the Black Gold which we consume so thoughtlessly. We could at least drink it seriously, savouring the flavour and tasting it properly, not knocking it back while reading through the mornings emails.

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  6. Billy,

    Loved the thoughts. Indeed, coffee has been influential in our Western Civilization. Another example is how it fueled the French Revolution. The revolutionaries would meet in coffeehouses both to disseminate ideas but also to plan actions against the monarchy.
    In the 19th-21st centuries, coffee is the fuel of production just as much as fossil fuels. It keeps workers working and students studying. It can be seen as a means for higher production rates and therefore higher revenue. That might be why, in part, it is now served in the paper cups and not sipped to savor but consumed. It’s consumption fuels the consumerism and can perpetuate that circle.
    I love coffee and want to romanticize about it for sure. In fact, I often do, but there is (forgive the pun) a darker side to this brewed beverage.

    As a side-note, irrespective of the previous thoughts, you should check out the book The History of the Word in Six Glasses by Tom Standage . Interesting read in the same vein as the post just on global scale.

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    • You know that’s a very good point. Once it’s no longer a luxury item to linger over, but a necessary ingredient to be able to work productively, then employers provide it for free because they know it increases that productivity they’re seeking. Thanks for reading!

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