In 1750, the first coffee house in England opened in Oxford, and it wouldn’t take long for the concept to take hold across the country. According to Aytoun Ellis’s The Penny Universities: A History of the Coffee-Houses (1956), by the end of that century, London was home to over 2,000 coffee houses, located throughout the city!
Ellis used the term “penny university” because a penny would gain entrance to a place of strong brew, the newspapers and periodicals of the day, and lively discussions about politics, literature, and commerce. Not surprisingly, when it came to ambience, location mattered a lot. Coffee houses located near universities filled with intellectual exchange. By contrast, much business would be conducted at coffee houses located in commercial districts. And still others would be host to gambling and other less refined activities.
Though I’d enjoy a quick time machine visit to a few of these old coffee houses, I doubt that I’d long to spend much time in them. I imagine that many were pretty loud and boisterous places, whereas my ideal of a coffee-consuming establishment is a café quiet enough to read or do a little work. Some brew to help awaken the mind and a place to sit down and read (or think) big thoughts . . . I like that.