February 2001 Issue
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Coffeehouses & Tea Gardens

by James Norwood Pratt




The eighteenth century produced far and away the most amusing and attractive society that England has ever known. It was a society addicted to among other things, tea. They must have drunk that first ship's load down and sent it back for more at once, for by 1725, England was using a quarter million pounds of tea a year.

Tea was still "tay" in 1711, when Alexander Pope wrote The Rape of the Lock, with its often overlooked reference to Queen Anne presiding at Hampton Court:
Here thou, great Anna, whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take and sometimes tea.

This could not be poetic license, for Pope never allowed himself any. The old pronunciation persisted in parts of those "three realms" down through the nineteenth century, as witness the Irish-American railroad workers song, "So it's work all day for the sugar in your tay-drill, ye tarriers, drill!" But Queen Anne, to correct Pope, drank tea not just "sometimes," but regularly and in such quantities that she substituted a large, bell-shaped silver teapot for the tiny Chinese pots until then in fashion. Our earliest silver tea services date from her reign, and so does the ascendancy of the English coffeehouse, an uncommonly interesting eighteenth century social institution.

The coffeehouse was a place where a man was safe from his womenfolk (who were forbidden to enter), and although the ladies in their drawing rooms complained about this, in truth no gentlewoman would have cared to set foot inside such establishments. Smoke from the outsized fireplace mingled with tobacco smoke from the clay pipes and the aroma of coffee being roasted and brewed, the melange heightened by the scents used by the fops present and the perfumed pomades almost all men of the day used as hairdressing. Since baths were by no means the common place they are now and most men rode horseback or drove carriages, body odors and the fragrance of barnyard and stable joined with the other smells to produce what a modern nose would consider a general stink. As twilight fell and the evening wore on, the light from the oil lamps and candles fought a losing battle with the thickening atmosphere until it was no longer possible to read the broadsides, newspapers, or Rules of the House thoughtfully provided by the proprietor. Besides much good fellowship, however, these noxious hangouts spawned a number of customs and institutions still in use today.

Our now-familiar ballot box made its first appearance in the Turk's Head, where it was known as "our wooden oracle" and used when discussions could only be settled by vote. When business was brisk, patrons would place money for waiters and serving wenches in boxes marked T.I.P., "to insure promptness." Commodities, property, and objets d'art were commonly sold at auction in salesrooms attached to coffeehouses and the great auction houses of Sotheby's and Christie's owe their origins to this tradition. One of Thomas Garway's early competitors was Edward Lloyd, whose clientele was mainly seafarers and their associates. It was for their convenience that soon after opening his doors in 1688, Lloyd began keeping a roster of ships, their sailing dates, their cargoes, and which ones were in the market for insurance. Ship owners and captains, merchants and insurance underwriters made Lloyd's their headquarters from then on and by the time of Lloyd s death in 1713, the foundations were well laid for two important institutions - Lloyds Register of Shipping and Lloyd's Insurance. The uniformed attendants in the insurance firm's offices are still called "waiters" today, just as in coffeehouse times.

As I said before, the coffeehouse, established for the drinking of one beverage was soon invaded by the other. Thomas Garway's was among the first ten or twelve in London. When very young, Pope was taken to meet the aged Poet Laureate John Dryden at Will's in Bow Street, where Dryden held court for years, his armchair in its "settled and prescriptive place" by the hearth in winter and out on a balcony in summer. Pepys, too, loved the coffeehouse atmosphere where, as he put it, a man "could toss his mind." It was the one place where a bishop and highwayman, both sure to be well-mannered, might enjoy one another's company unmolested. The democratic character of these establishments worried some members of the government enough that in 1675, they persuaded Charles II to suppress them as centers of sedition. A remarkable thing happened. Men of all parties set up such an outcry at being denied their favorite haunts that the king canceled his proclamation only eleven days after issuing it. By the time of Queen Anne, there were some five hundred of these "nurseries of idleness" in London.

It is not too much to claim that the coffeehouses produced and polished the wit of the eighteenth century, that without them Tom Jones. Tristram .Shandy, or Gulliver's Travels would make much poorer reading. This is why they were called "penny universities," a reference both to the conversation they bred and the penny admittance fee. A cup of tea or coffee cost twopence, usually, and chocolate a halfpenny more. A pipe of tobacco cost a penny, and newspapers were free. According to Richard Steele, all a man who wished to join a group of talkers did was to light his pipe from the candle on the table before them; this served as adequate introduction.

Steele and his friend Joseph Addison had become the first Englishmen to earn a livelihood as writers. The coffeehouses served not only as rooms for reading their periodicals, the Tatler and the Spectator, but provided much of the material for them ­ and a refuge for the authors as well. What Will's was to Dryden, Button's on Russel Street was to Addison. There, safe from his highborn wife, he enjoyed his friends and wrote his regular columns, like the one in 1711, advising his fellow citizens that "all well regulated households" served tea in the morning, taking care that a copy of his Spectator should "invariably be part of the tea equipage." Addison's "citizen" visits the coffeehouse daily, there to drink tea. His "fine lady," modeled on his wife no doubt, drinks tea every morning and before going out to the opera at night. Jonathan Swift had his be beloved niece Stella send her letters to his preferred St. James Coffee House, where he was familiarly known as "the mad parson." The list is endless.

The course of the eighteenth century in England witnessed the flourishing of another peculiar institution called the "tea garden." Unlike the male-only purview of the coffeehouse, the whole idea of the tea garden was for ladies and gentlemen to take their tea together out of doors and surrounded by entertainment, or at least temptation: a great ballroom with orchestra, hidden arbors, flowered walks, bowling greens, sometimes concerts, gambling, racing, or fireworks at night. These gardens, usually extensive, lovely, and filled with good cheer became more and more numerous toward 1750. Box office draws included appearances by such artists as Mozart and Handel. They attracted everybody "that loves eating, drinking, staring, or crowding," as Horace Walpole said of the 1742 opening of Ranelagh Gardens. Everybody from the royal family down was there, and everybody-Henry Fielding and Dr. Johnson included-returned often. Half a century later it was at a similar garden that Lord Nelson met his beloved Emma, later Lady Hamilton, whom Sir Joshua Reynolds, I think it was, even portrayed in her former role of "fair tea maker." Girls nubile and quick-tongued enough to he hired as tea makers made Ranelagh, Vauxhall, Marylebone, Covent and the other tea gardens popular, as many a memoir attests, but they were "tea" gardens thanks chiefly to tea's fashionability. Though they made the drink more fashionable still, admittedly, mainly these were important places for the men and women of this "most amusing and attractive society" to meet and consort freely, outside all bounds of class and caste. In New York as in London and elsewhere, the gardens disappeared along with the coffeehouses once both had served their purpose.