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The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse [Paperback]

Brian Cowan

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Book Description

8 Mar 2011
What induced the British to adopt foreign coffee-drinking customs in the seventeenth century? Why did an entirely new social institution, the coffeehouse, emerge as the primary place for consumption of this new drink? In this lively book, Brian Cowan locates the answers to these questions in the particularly British combination of curiosity, commerce, and civil society. Cowan provides the definitive account of the origins of coffee drinking and coffeehouse society, and in so doing he reshapes our understanding of the commercial and consumer revolutions in Britain during the long Stuart century. Britain's virtuosi, gentlemanly patrons of the arts and sciences, were profoundly interested in things strange and exotic. Cowan explores how such virtuosi spurred initial consumer interest in coffee and invented the social template for the first coffeehouses. As the coffeehouse evolved, rising to take a central role in British commercial and civil society, the virtuosi were also transformed by their own invention.

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"'A well-researched, wide-ranging and fascinating book... Cowan adds rich colours and shades to a picture we had hitherto only in outline.' (Kevin Sharpe, Times Literary Supplement) 'Because the modern world was washed into existence on a tide of caffeine, the subject is too important to be left to historians of food and drink... Cowan is concerned with the political history of coffee houses and points to the heterogeneity of coffee house culture.' (London Review of Books) 'Erudite and persuasively argued, this work is based on a truly impressive range of primary and secondary sources, as demonstrated in the extensive bibliography.' (William Clarence-Smith, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Institute of Historical Research)"

About the Author

Brian Cowan holds the Canada Research Chair in Early Modern British History at McGill University.

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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Coffee and the Virtuosi 25 Oct 2008
By Alexis A. Harasemovitch - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Brian Cowan's The Social Life of Coffee discusses the cultural aspects of rise of the coffeehouse in seventeenth century Britain. Cowan traces the role of the virtuosi--a group of gentlemanly intellectuals interested in the arts and sciences--in the development of coffee culture. Cowan argues that virtuosi curiosity about the exotic ignited consumer interest in coffee and that the "intellectual proclivities and the social codes and conventions of the virtuosi" shaped the emerging coffeehouse. Cowan explores how coffee houses fit into the existing urban social milieu and thus gained social and political legitimacy. According to Cowan, coffee won out over various other foreign imports such as marijuana because, although it was exotic, it retained a reputation for sobering effects. Unhindered by a reputation for lewd behavior or social disorder, it could be accepted more easily by the larger society.

For the virtuosi, the coffeehouse became a site of intellectual discussion and debate, a site in which gentlemen virtuosi could at least superficially ignore the strict social distinctions present in the university or the great house. Coffeehouses became sites of political activity, and Cowan argues that participation in coffeehouse political debate could make or break political reputations. In the final chapters, Cowan sketches the coffeehouse as the locus of societal concern about various subversive political and social behaviors. Cowan outlines how the government and political elites regulated coffeehouses to control political foment and social degradation. In doing so, he seeks to problemitize the idea of the rise of the public sphere, showing that 17th century British society often supported a civil public life, not necessarily an open, democratic one.

Although the work is interesting and well researched, Cowan has a hard time shaking off the trappings of the original dissertation on which the work was based. He is heavy on the historiography, frequently invoking Jürgen Habermas as his philosophical foe. This deep engagement with the existing literature in the text, while perhaps appropriate for a dissertation, is distracting and unnecessary. There is also the problem of the scope of his study. It seems as if Cowan may have set out to write a history of the social aspects of the commoditization of coffee, and been carried away by his study of the virtuosi, which make up the most interesting and well-argued sections of the book. Narrowing the book to the topic of the social life of the virtuosi in the British coffeehouse, as well as reorganizing his chronologically and topically diffuse chapters would go a long way toward making this a more satisfying read.

Despite its shortcomings, Cowan's work leaves open many avenues into which future historians might delve, including a deeper exploration of the xenophobia leveled at coffeehouse culture, an exploration of the homosocial aspects of the virtuosi and coffeehouses, and a study of the commercial mechanisms that made these coffeehouses possible and profitable.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book to enjoy with your coffee 15 Oct 2007
By P. Stern - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
What a terrific little monograph! Cowan has written a fascinating book on the emergence of the British coffee-house. He has interesting things to say on many topics -- including trade, "politeness," and the history of free speech. His writing is lively and mercifully free from jargon (I could count on one hand the number of times the word "discourse" appears in the book). Above all he has in abundance the historian's foremost virtue: the ability to make accurate, felicitious generalizations about the past. I recommend the book to anyone interested in the history of consumerism or early modern Britain.
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