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Coffee & Our "Third Place"

Compared with beer or wine, coffee hasn’t been around all that long.  Beer dates back to 5,000 BC.

Discovered growing in Ethiopia, it was the Arabs who first began brewing coffee in 800 AD, and soon after opened the world's first coffee house--in Mecca.  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, where the first European coffee house was opened.

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

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

In colonial America, coffee houses were popular in northern cities--in Boston, New York City and Philadelphia.  On his way to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1774, John Adams stopped in New York City for a few days of relaxation.  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 stoic New Englander such as John Adams, and, feeling a bit guilty perhaps, he boarded the next barge for the Jersey Shore, and traveled on to Philadelphia. In the "City of Brotherly Love", John Adams would convince reluctant convention delegates to vote against their better judgement, and ratify the Declaration of Independence.

In 1791, with Alexander Hamilton’s financial policies firmly in place, and an insatiable demand for United States Securities, Merchants Coffee House and 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 and buyers would congregate and conduct their business.


Today's coffee houses constitute what is called a “Third Place.”  In this line of thinking, the “First Place” is your 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 that 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- and Elks-Lodges, book stores and art galleries, or any place you can go and enjoy the company of like-minded people.

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