The notion of a “public sphere” is useful when thinking about the spaces available for public discussion and debate – and thus the formation of public opinion – in different societies). The writings of Jürgen Habermas (1989; 1992) have proven to be especially valuable in this regard. It is Habermas’ contention that under ideal conditions the public sphere serves as a discursive realm situated between the purview of the state on the one hand, and the economic dictates of the marketplace on the other, for public deliberations over social issues. In his words, the public sphere represents a space for “rational-critical debate” among citizens, where “a time consuming process of mutual enlightenment” may take place “for the ‘general interest’ on the basis of which alone a rational agreement between publicly competing opinions could freely be reached” (Habermas 1989, 195). This normative conception of open and free relations of communication, where people can engage in reasoned dialogue about the conduct of social life as equals, highlights a range of intriguing questions for communication scholarship.
The importance of coffee houses for the emergence of what may be described as an embryonic public sphere in various European countries has been the subject of much scholarly attention. For Habermas, the coffee house – with its idealized projection of “a kind of social intercourse that, far from presupposing equality of status, disregarded status altogether” (1989, 36) – evolved into the central institution of the English public sphere. Its ascendant popularity corresponded to the celebrated ambience it enjoyed as an establishment open, in principle at least, to any ordinary citizen inclined to “learn the news and discuss it.” Individual premises served as meeting places, usually for a specific type of clientele sharing an interest in a particular kind of news or information: newspapers, along with broadsides, pamphlets, journals, and similar tracts, were distributed via coffee houses, where they were passed about from one patron to the next.
The purchase of a single “dish” of coffee entitled the customer to a seat around a communal table, to be occupied for several hours if so desired. Virtually every type of interest, trade, or profession was catered for by one coffee house or another, with particular establishments associated with politics, law, medicine, religion, science, arts, literature, or wit, among other topics. The term penny university, derived from a well-known rhyme of the day, highlighted their educational qualities. A further use revolved around the conduct of business (including insurance, shipping, stock and commodity dealing), where regular hours were kept at certain rooms for negotiations and transactions. Similarly pertinent here was the way coffee houses supported the fledgling postal system via the collection and delivery of letters and newspapers, while others facilitated alternative – even at times surreptitious – purposes, such as auctioneering, matrimonial services, masonic meetings, gambling, and prostitution.
Apparent from the outset was the formative role coffee house sociability of private individuals wielding considerable influence. The remarkable appetite of participants for news – as well as for political discussion of its significance – recurrently attracted the attention of authorities concerned with controlling the flow of information. Habermas (1989) observes that coffee houses were sometimes castigated as seedbeds of political unrest. On these grounds, Charles II’s government responded to the “great complaints” that were being “daily made” of the “license that was taken in coffee houses to utter most indecent, scandalous and seditious discourses” (Pincus 1995, 828) by seeking to suppress them by proclamation on 29 December 1675. This attempt was abandoned shortly thereafter, however, when it became apparent that the order was being ignored. In addition to government proclamations, other efforts mobilized against coffee houses over the years included Christian authorities convinced that free speech was helping to cultivate atheism, purveyors of rival beverages (including critics fearful that the demand for English grain used in ale would be undercut), and also women alarmed by the amount of time their idle spouses spent newsmongering.
This last point underlines a significant issue. Although they were egalitarian in theory, actual participation in the typically boisterous, uninhibited discussions of the coffee house was largely confined to middleand upper-class men able to afford the price – and conspicuous leisure time – to indulge their coffee-drinking habit on a regular (frequently daily) basis. In contrast with the salons of France, women were seldom welcomed to partake in conversation in this milieu, their custom tending to be discouraged for entirely sexist reasons characteristic of the period. Records indicate that some women were present in the role of proprietor (a “coffee woman,” who was often a widow) or, more typically, in a service capacity, but in any case women were ordinarily excluded from taking part in “rational-critical debate” (Habermas 1989) because of the gendered culture of what was a predominantly masculinized domain.
The importance of coffee houses for public life had begun gradually to decline by the 1780s, in the main as a consequence of changing social patterns. Pertinent factors contributing to their demise included the growing prevalence of private clubs (where membership rules could be upheld) and public houses, as well as the increasingly popular consumption of tea in the private household. Many of the services provided by coffee houses – such as the relaying of post or for business purposes – were being transferred to other social institutions. By the 1830s, their status had diminished to the point where their association with public opinion formation had been effectively displaced.
Historians continue to rehearse contrary views on the extent to which coffee houses actually embodied the normative ideals of a public sphere. Nevertheless, there is general agreement that a consideration of their relative freedoms throws into sharp relief many of the factors that constrain public discussion and debate today.
- Clayton, A. (2003). London’s coffee houses. London: Historical Publications.
- Cowan, B. (2005). The social life of coffee. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere (trans. T. Burger with F. Lawrence). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Habermas, J. (1992). Further reflections on the public sphere. In C. Calhoun (ed.), Habermas and the public sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 421– 461.
- Pincus, S. (1995). “Coffee politicians does create”: Coffeehouses and Restoration political culture. Journal of Modern History, 67, 807–834.
- Raymond, J. (ed.) (2002). News, newspapers, and society in early modern Britain. London: Frank Cass.