Coffee in American Culture

The first known evidence of coffee consumption comes from Yemenese Sufi monasteries in the 15th century. The monks had discovered that coffee’s stimulating effects could aid in concentration and fuel prolonged meditation, and they quickly spread it to many of their monasteries in the Middle East. From there it moved to Turkey, Persia, and by way of the Mediterranean, Europe. Taking hold in the metropolises of the age, it fostered and stimulated culture, art, and commerce everywhere it went.


Perhaps the most famous examples are the coffee houses of 17th century London; nicknamed “penny universities,” these thousands of coffee houses served as gathering places for scholars, writers, thinkers, politicians, and businessmen who would meet and exchange ideas. The American coffee house would base itself on these establishments, and it was in them that much of the groundwork for an American state was laid.


Coffee was the beverage (along with beer) around which many American institutions and ideas were formed. Lacking the established infrastructure of a state, colonists looked to the coffee house as a common place of gathering. Much business was conducted there and societies met in the halls. Perhaps the most crucial role it played in colonial America was at the center of commerce.


American coffee houses were extraordinarily different from the bohemian gathering places of London. They contained private meeting rooms, long halls for assembly and auction, and most importantly, maritime log books. Situated in the ports of colonial cities, they held detailed logs of all ships coming in and out of port as well as navigational maps and public accounts. Before the modern office, most business was conducted in waterside coffee houses. The Merchant’s Coffee House of New York was the business hub of the city, and much of the surrounding colonies. It was the birthplace of the Bank of New York, and was the first place public stocks were sold by brokers. It's successor, the Tontine was funded by a group of 150 merchants and became the first stock exchange in the city.


While coffee had a central role in commerce, it became rooted in our culture as a symbol of American independence. Following the tea tariffs imposed by the British, and the subsequent Tea Party in Boston, most Americans adopted coffee as an act of patriotism and defiance against royal rule. From that point on, coffee, and the establishments that served it became symbols of American identity. The Sons of Liberty, and later the American army, held meetings in and routed information through coffee houses. Throughout the entire revolution they were used as places to disseminate information, hold trials, and serve as impromptu gathering places for the groups that later became our governmental and financial institutions.