The institutional framework of the coffee house has taken many shapes throughout history, however the coffee shop as a place of ‘democratic discussion’ and ‘social interaction’ was established already with the very first coffee shops in New York City. These underlying concepts have established the coffee house as a public institution and thus established the institutional framework for the formation of a social public sphere in the coffee shop.
The introduction of the coffee shop to New York came with the introduction of English manners and customs, after the surrender to the British in 1674. The coffee houses were the centers of business, political and social life of the city. A distinctive feature of the New York coffee houses was the organization of trials, general assemblies and council meetings that were held in the coffee house (Ukers 1922, 115). The New York coffee house was founded on the idea of it being a civic forum, rather than a creative or bohemian hub, which was found in cities like Paris or London (Ibid.).
The very first coffee house in New York City was the King’s Arms, also referred to as The Coffee House, because at the time of its establishment in 1696, it was the only one of its kind. The King’s Arms was two stories high, and the second floor was used for special meetings for merchants and citicents of New York, for discussions of politics and elections. The meeting room in which such meetings took place was what distinguished the coffee house from the tavern and invited permanent customers, whereas the taverns invited for temporary visitors (Ukers 1922, 117). Althoght it was a small and intimate place, for the time it was the most fashionable public house in the city, and considered the headquarters of the anti-Leislerian party (Bayles 1915, 67). On the second floor, there was a bar room used for special meetings with a range of small boxes, screened with green curtains, where guests could sip their coffee (Bayles 1915, 69). Since 1703, The King’s Arms was appointed to host conferences of committees of the counsel and of the assembly and replaced former randomly chosen places of taverns for these purposes. The coffee house reported news
, held elections for committees
, and politics was discussed inside.
The Tontine Coffee House was established in 1794 by The Tontine Association. As written in a newspaper clip
from 1871, “The merchants had long felt the need of some place where they could assemble and discuss the probable results of trade and the various questions of the time, and, during their leisure, indulge in a cup of prime old coffee…”. The Tontine Association was a society established around a shareholder principle to fund the coffee house. 230 shares were sold for 200 Dollars each to shareholders. It was decided by the society that The Tontine Coffee House was to be kept and used as a coffee house, which succeeded until 1834 when the premises were let for general business-office purposes (Ukers 1922, 123). The attempt to keep the Tontine as a coffee house witnesses of a societal and cultural perception of ‘the coffee house’ as valuable framework for facilitating the centre of society, of trading and political discussion, but perhaps also as a necessary public and social space that did not involve alcohol, as did the Taverns.
The social public spheres of the early coffee houses framed more than trading and discussion of laws, they also made forums for formulating “adjustments of customs”. In the newspaper clip
from July 25, 1871, it is described how the habit of distributing expensive scarf’s to bearers and others at ordinary funerals was discussed because many poor families could not provide the necessary mark of respect for a departed relative. The ‘evil influence of such fashion’ was addressed at the meeting called at the Kings Arms/the Coffee House, and a pledge was signed by nearly two hundred men to abstain from the custom of distributing scarf’s, except to the attendant ministers and physicians. “This was the death knell of the oppressive fashion”.
Therefore, more than trading offices and a scenes of political debate, the public sphere developing in the very first coffee houses in New York between merchants, politicians, lawyers and other customers seemed to have been appreciated as a social forum and a ‘forum of leisure’ as well. This perspective is addressed in a question raised in the newspaper clip from 1871:
“The old Coffee-House was then in full operation, but who can tell us the scenes therein? Who can call back the voices of the old merchants of that day, and repeat the stories they laughed over in the Coffee-House on “opening night”?”
In an article clip from New York, Sunday, June 22, 1933, “Mike Callahan’s Old Sidewalk Café”
, it is described how in the 1890s people, lawyers, newspaper men and women met at the café on Elm Street to discuss the trials being held nearby. The café is described as ‘a place to find people, famous lawyers and witnesses’, that socialized with judges and defendants. The sphere inside of Callahan’s Café was liberated from class distinction and formal roles.
As such, the early coffee house found its cultural role as a public space where people gathered across differences and where cultural coherency was debated and shaped in a public sphere.
William H. Ukers: “History of Coffee in Old New York”, in All About Coffee, (New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal), 1922