Monday, October 4, 2010

Coffee Houses 19th Century Style

I have been reading those pamphlets compiled by James Freeman Clarke entitled "Coffee Houses and Coffee Palaces in England".  The copyright is 1882 and the purpose--lest we get all Rick Steves--is not so travelling Americans will know where to get their caffeine fix, but instead to find ways to establish "coffee houses in Boston as one means of promoting temperance."  Temperance, far from being a dead concern, continues to be something that we worry about today.  It is an old word that could be applied to anything from the illegal drug trade to college binge-drinking.  Clarke's idea is at once quaint and intriguing.

It is based on the belief that people drink so they can be together and that the only place where the working classes could gather was in pubs or "gin palaces". Think "crack-house" or "opium den" for this last one.  There was a time in England when the government promoted beer drinking because of the evils of hard liquor.  Obviously these temperance advocates fall into a famous trap.  They seem to think that only poor people become alcoholics.  This we know is not true.  Also (though they could not have anticipated it) today most people drink most of their alcohol at home!  The social element of both "public houses" and "cocoa bars" has been heavily eroded over the years.

Still, they do recognize the social needs of human beings and the desire to gather together.  Clarke's coffee houses of England offer entertainment, reading (and smoking) rooms, and parties and "meetings" of various kinds.  They remind me of the "all ages" shows in Portland's Old Port when I was in high school, or the "chem-free" punk shows in church basements all over New England.  People were drawn together (I assume they still are) for corporate activity.  That is, for the purpose of having fun. 

Fun was recognized by progressives of the era as something that all people deserved and enjoyed.  Early on the pamphlet quotes a letter from Florence Nightingale in which she writes "What these men want is a place where they can have coffee, read the newspapers, and play games (without temptations to gambling); also a place where they can eat and have decent sleeping accommodation."  The houses served and invited both women and men. The ones in Dundee provided tickets for those "who preferred to give food rather than money to needy people"  which could be redeemed at the coffee houses for food and (of course) coffee.  The menus do seem a bit light on the chocolate croissants, but did feature waiters and waitresses, which is nice.

Coffee today still serves a role and function both in Burbania and elsewhere.  I live near a very nice coffee shop, for example.  Few of its regular patrons are looking for a place to sleep, but if you go after the dangerous melee of rush hour, it is a great place to read the paper or to chat.  I have meetings there often.  Others do as well.  Nothing wildly sophisticated ever happens there I suspect, but it is all still good. 

Sometimes (OK, often) I wonder if there wouldn't be a way to integrate this coffee house culture (both new and old, but particularly old) into the church. There is a connection to that "church of the future" that I wrote about last week.  The coffee house is (or was) a public space.  The clientele ebbs and flows at various times and yet the community remains stable.  It was a community that in large part determined how they would spend their time.  Clarke's coffee houses were service-based as well as promoting intellectual and (I suspect) spiritual stimulation.  They were also inexpensive, which cannot be said for the modern versions.  I believe there are lessons there.

 I cannot end this post without providing some links.

The very best (and modern) coffee house I ever went to was in Detroit.  It was run by Serbian immigrants.  My wife and I frequented it a lifetime ago when we lived there.  Sadly I could not actually find a link to it, but I thought it should be mentioned anyway.  This link is to the Coffee Shop near my house.  Weirdly, the picture at the top of the page is of a different coffee shop.  The smaller pictures, however, are local.

The best place for inspiring James Freeman Clarke quotes is here.

Finally, a link to my earlier post on the church of the future.

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