Richard Nisley

History - World Released - Jan 06, 2013

Compared to Beer, which dates back to 5,000 BC, coffee hasn’t been around all that long. Discovered growing in Ethiopia, it was the Arabs who first began brewing coffee in 800 AD, and soon after opened the first coffee house--in Mecca. Right away, coffee was associated with intellectual pursuits. Patrons played chess and backgammon while discussing--what else?--politics and religion.

It was the great trading center of Venice that introduced coffee to Europe, in 1615, and opened the first coffee house on the Rialto.

The first English coffee houses opened in Oxford in 1637 and were known as “penny universities.” A penny would get you a cup of coffee and a lecture by various Oxford professors who frequented these establishments. Fueled by coffee, the European Enlightenment began in Oxford coffee houses. Coffee houses sprung up in London, Edinburgh, Paris, Amsterdam, Florence, Geneva, Berlin, Vienna, Weimar and the Enlightenment followed.

Did coffee make people smarter? Probably not, but it did make them safer. Until coffee came along, beer and wine was the beverage of choice among the working class. They couldn’t drink the water, because during the industrial revolution the water in European cities was badly polluted. Instead, factory workers drank beer and wine during their lunch hour and returned to work a bit groggy. Not good. People working with machines began losing fingers and hands. Enter the stimulating effects of coffee. Accidents decreased while worker productivity increased.

In colonial America, coffee houses were popular in northern cities--in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. On his way to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1774, John Adams stopped over in New York for a few days. Later, he wrote of being served sumptuous breakfasts in various coffee houses, on richly-designed plates, with large silver coffee urns and teapots, luxurious napkins, perfect toast and butter, and luscious peaches, pears, plums and muskmelon. A few days of this proved too much for a New England stoic such as Adams, and, feeling guilty perhaps, he boarded the next barge for the Jersey Shore and traveled on to Philadelphia.

In 1791, with Alexander Hamilton’s financial policies firmly in place and an insatiable demand for United States Securities, Merchants Coffee House and the Tontine Coffee House, both located at the corner of Wall and Water Street, were doing a brisk business. Until the New York Stock Exchange opened its doors in 1792, it was here that stock brokers would congregate.

Coffee houses constitute a “third place.” The “first place” is home and the “second place” is where you work. In his book “The Great Good Place,” Ray Oldenburg argues that “third places” are important for civil society, democracy, civic engagement, and establishing feelings of a sense of place. They’re “anchors” of community life and facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction. In the vernacular, they’re a place to hang, a home away from home. Other “third places” include the local barbershop, the corner tavern, Moose or Elks Lodges, the Barnes and Noble book store, or any place you go to relax.

Here in Westfield, we have Starbucks, the Coffee Beanery, and the Coffee Brewery. For my money, the best coffee is sold by Seven-Eleven. You can’t hang there, but you can feel smart about buying a fresh cup of Columbian coffee for half of what you would pay anywhere else.
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