Is our coffee culture a new phenomenon?


How we take our tea and coffee has mattered before

In the late 1990s I used to buy coffee from a small shop in my local town centre. Along one wall were containers of different roasted coffee beans that could be ground to your requirements before being wrapped tightly in brown paper. On one visit the owner, who I had got to know well, informed me that she was closing because the shop did not generate enough income to cover the rent. Not long after this, a local “untouched” Victorian coffee and tea merchants, complete with brass fittings, long mahogany counter and canisters so old that the US flag emblazoned on them had only twenty stars, failed to find a buyer and its contents were eventually sold at auction.

What a difference a new millennium makes. There are now more than 5000 major coffee shop outlets in the UK, with the “drive-thru” option a regular sight, and independent cafes are constantly on the look out for a new coffee “USP” or experience. No-one would dare now to sell the coffee of my youth: a teaspoon of instant in a cup and saucer to go with your fish, chips and a slice of bread and butter. In fact, a request for coffee was unusual because the default was always tea.

Today even fast food outlets sell a range of coffee, and a search for a “Nespresso” coffee machine from just one online retailer produced over a thousand results. Instant coffee now comes with added finely ground roasted beans, and it is possible to buy a whole range of cups and glasses to match your coffee of choice. A high-priced coffee, whether to go or stay in, has now moved from the luxury to the necessity column of your expenses.

Tea also has not escaped this explosion in demand and “sophistication”. Loose leaf tea, once gratefully left behind with the arrival of the teabag, has made a comeback. Cafes now provide a menu of loose leaf teas and serve them in a glass teapot or a cafetiere with a timer set to the required “stewing” time.

Tea and coffee are now not just drinks, they are a statement of who you are and how you want to be seen. It may come as a surprise, but this cannot be dismissed as a new phenomenon; another so called facet of the fickleness of the image conscious and their obsession with social media. The eighteenth century also experienced something similar, with a complete change in the culture of the home precipitated by the availability of new foods and especially hot drinks.

By the start of the eighteenth century the interiors of homes started to change in appearance with tapestries and bed hangings giving way to curtains and wallpapers, lighter furniture replacing the dark oak of previous generations and china and glass supplanting pewter. Lower prices prompted by industrialisation and cheaper varied imports meant that people could buy more, and not just out of necessity, but also for more frivolous reasons such as fashion, sociability, novelty and pleasure. People started to think about the “mental value” of what they bought and became more aware of the concept of style. Sound familiar?

There was an emerging middle class who wanted these semi-luxury goods which were aspirational, but also necessary as well to embed and consolidate their status which was still in its infancy. Alongside Wedgewood’s exclusivity and fine Chinese or Japanese imports, were less expensive accessible ceramics, and symbolic of a more “replaceable” approach to possessions that we recognise today.

Just like today, in the eighteenth century these changes were most apparent in the increased consumption of hot drinks prompted by the fall in the 1720s of the price of tea. The evidence for this is found in sale inventories and probate lists that increasingly list hot drink utensils and paraphernalia, and the growth in the whole theatre and sociability of hot drinks. Homes were sometimes advertised as having not only a parlour but also a tearoom, and equipment needed to make the hot drinks now moved centre stage to be both functional and decorative. Again, like today this was a change driven by the cities, with rural areas slower to take up these new modes of consumption and novel goods.

Today tea and coffee drinking have no gender bias or stereotype, whereas in the eighteenth-century tea drinking was associated with domestic femininity; shaping female identity as well as behaviour. The parlour was a place of female domestic sociability, with equipment on display which now changed when possible to match current tastes and fashions. Fashion trends included those inspired by empire and exoticism, as well the Grand Tour which often moved beyond Europe as war took hold in the latter part of the eighteenth century.

Just as with today’s normalisation of take away hot drinks, teapots, cups, saucers and sugar basins became necessities rather than luxuries, and came together as a whole rather than separate items, much as in the same way that we now purchase certain cups or glasses for a new coffee machine.

In the eighteenth century an increase in the variety of cheaper imported groceries led to a transformation in domestic material culture reflected most strongly in hot drinks, just as our attitudes have changed so dramatically this century towards tea and coffee drinking. We too use hot drinks and their paraphernalia as a tool to construct the identity we wish to present to the world. In the eighteenth century, without the social media, communications and technology of today there was already a consumer mentality that considered the symbolic as well as the economic value, and recognised the role of pleasure and sensory attraction in everyday functional objects.





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