Coffee, Culture and Conversation in the Eighteenth Century

SCEMS’ Dr Adam James Smith has news about an unanticipated collaboration prompted by his short film, The Coffee House. Adam writes:

We owe an awful lot to the eighteenth century. The eighteenth century saw Britain embrace an abundance of commodities and luxuries that we now take for granted. Just think, without the eighteenth century we wouldn’t have tea, chocolate, sugar, street lights, porcelain, Poldark, dictionaries, newspapers or novels. As one of my undergraduate lecturers was always keen to reminder us, if it wasn’t for the eighteenth century we wouldn’t even have chimneys.

Perhaps most poignantly though, without the eighteenth century we might not have coffee, and even more distressing than that, we might not have the coffee shops to drink it in!

On April 21st Twin Café and I will be presenting an evening dedicated to the eighteenth century’s invention of the coffee house, at an event inspired by the release of a short film based on my PhD thesis at the end of last year.

The film (titled simply, ‘The Coffee House’) was the product of an Arts Enterprise competition to pitch an idea for a short film based on your PhD. The winners had the opportunity to work with local film-maker Gemma Thorpe to make their idea a reality.

I was painfully aware of the challenges of trying to condense my thesis into an accessible and enjoyable presentation with a run-time of less than five minutes. The main issue was that my PhD offered a literary investigation into the political application of politeness in early eighteenth-century partisan periodicals. It would take more than five minutes to unpack how I was using the word ‘partisan’, let alone the rest.

So instead I pitched a film about the coffee houses in which these periodicals were read. Of course, you only need to take a glimpse at the wonderful work of scholars like Brian Cowan and Alan Downie to quickly see that the social history of the coffee house is in itself an incredibly complex and sophisticated field of study. However, since my background is in literary studies I decided to showcase just a few of the ways that the coffee house was represented in the print culture of the time, hopefully foregrounding a fascinating contradiction.

On the one hand, there was the eighteenth-century vision of the coffee house as a centre for cultural exchange and learning. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele worked quickly to capitalise on this perception of the coffee house, famously adopting in The Spectator the stated intention of filling these new coffee shops with knowledge, culture, reason, philosophy, ideas, opinion and, above all, conversation.

However, for some eighteenth-century satirists the tendency to imagine the coffee house as being more than the acceptable face of day-time drinking was hilariously undermined by the fact that they were commercial enterprises. In Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock the poet encourages readers to ask whether the coffee house was really the home of learned discussion, or merely an impression of it.

Hopefully the film foregrounds these two rival interpretations of what the coffee house was capable of and encourages viewers to decide which reading they prefer.

The film was positively received online and subsequently prompted the director of Twin Café (a social enterprise in Sheffield) to get in touch with the idea for our upcoming event. Directed by recent Sheffield graduate Sarah Murphy, Twin Café sells Nicaraguan coffee and uses the profits to sponsor social projects in both Sheffield and Sheffield’s twin city, Estelí.

The event will begin with the first public screening of ‘The Coffee House’ film before opening up the floor to a series of speakers from Sheffield and beyond, who will each discuss the connections between their own field of research and the eighteenth-century coffee house.

We’ll have History’s Kate Davison sharing contemporary accounts of the coffee house, recent English MA graduate Sam Longhust talking about the eighteenth-century’s invention of “clubbing” and History’s Anna Jenkin relating the mysterious discovery of three dead women behind a locked door in London’s prestigious district of the Temple. English PhD student Carly Stevenson will also be reading an extract from Pope’s Rape of the Lock and Manchester Metropolitan University’s Richard Gough Thomas will end the evening with a discussion of conversation in the coffee house.

It should make for a very entertaining evening and hopefully we’ll finally be able to answer some of the questions raised in ‘The Coffee House’ film.

‘Coffee, Culture and Conversation in the Eighteenth Century’ takes place at Union Street on APRIL 21, 5:30pm-8:00pm. Tickets are £3 and proceeds go to Twin Café’s chosen charities.

See full details for this event (on Facebook, no log in required).
View the film that inspired the event (on Adam’s blog). 
Follow Adam on Twitter: @elementaladam
Learn more about Twin Café:

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Coffee, Culture, Conversation