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