Coffee: A Revolutionary Drink

The history of coffee is long and complex and can never be fully explored in a single blog post, however, because of my admiration for the caffeinated beverage I wanted to learn how the colonist utilized coffee.  Fortunately, in the collections at Kenmore, we not only have a selection of 18th century coffeepots and cups but also original records for coffee purchases made by the Lewis family.  These objects give us a tangible record of coffee in the colonial home but this post will also explore how the drink became popular in the colonies, how the colonials made their morning brew, and how a tax made coffee a revolutionary drink earning it the nickname “King of the American breakfast table”.[1]

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Betty Washington Lewis made three purchases of coffee in January and March 1796.

The Basics

Coffee plants are flowering shrubs that produce berries which are harvested, peeled, dried, roasted, ground and, eventually, brewed to produce the cup of dark brown liquid that helps most of us get through the day.[2]

Coffee, tea, and chocolate were introduced into North America almost simultaneously in the later part of the 1600s.[3]  By the mid-1700s, coffee and tea were becoming staple drinks for early Americans. [4]

The easiest way to get a cup of coffee in Colonial America was the coffee-house, which usually was a mixture of café, tavern, and inn.  Coffee-houses tended to offer more than just a strong cup of java and had ale, wine, spirits, or even tea available. [5]  Even Fredericksburg had its own coffeehouse.  As local historian Paula Felder notes, “In 1751, Charles Julian of Norfolk, a baker, opened a coffee house and was granted an ordinary license.  When he joined the new Masonic lodge in 1756, the meetings were held ‘at brother Julian’s’ until the lodge meetings were moved to the new Town House in 1763.  The coffee house remained a prominent gathering place for many years. A ceremonial luncheon was given here in honor of George Washington in February 1784 on his first visit after the Revolutionary War.”  However, coffee-houses were not always a socially acceptable place for everyone. Nor were they always the most convenient way to get that much sought after cup of java.  As the desire for coffee heightened, it made its way into the homes showing up on the breakfast table, in-between meals, and after dinners.[6]

How to Make a Colonial Cup

In the 1700s, when you purchased coffee from your local merchant it most likely was in the form of bags of green beans.  The burden of turning those beans into the perfect cup of coffee was on the consumer.

Roasting

Domestick Coffee Man

Title page of Humphrey Broadbent’s The Domestick Coffee-man published in 1722.

The first step was roasting the green beans to a dark brown. Humphrey Broadbent, writer of The Domestick Coffee-man, explained how to properly roast the beans, “Particular Care ought to be taken in Roasting the Berries, for without doubt in that, Depends much of goodness of them Berries.  I hold it best to Roast them in an Iron Vessel full of little Holes, made to turn on a Spit over a Charcoal Fire, keeping them continually Turning, and sometimes Shaking them that they do not Burn, and when they are taken out of the Vessel, spread’em on some Tin or Iron Plate ‘till the Vehemency of the Heat is Vanished.”[7]

If you had a more primitive set up and didn’t have a roasting spit you could place them in a frying pan, known as a spider, or iron kettle in the hearth.  When the beans are heated, they slowly turn yellow, release steam, expand in size, and darken.  Once they begin to crackle, they are ready to be cooled.[8]

Grinding

By the early 18th century in Europe, coffee grinders were quite common and inexpensive.  These grinders were based on the original spice grinder. However, in the colonies, most people used a mortar and pestle to pound the beans into a coarse powder.[9]

Brewing

There were two different methods of brewing that were popular: boiling and infusion.  Broadbent helpfully explained the difference to the novice coffee drinker who wished to become a connoisseur.

“The common way of making this Liquor, is, to put an Ounce of Powder, to a Quart of Water and so let it Boil till the Head is Boyled down; but this is a very silly way…if Coffee be but very little too much Boiled it is Spoiled, and grows either Flat or Sour, but if by long Custom you will not part from your Boiling, let it not Boil above a Minute.”[10]

Broadbent much preferred infusion, stating “Put the Quantity of Powder you intend, into your pot then pour Boiling-Hot Water upon the aforsaid Powder, and let if stand to infuse Five Minutes before the Fire.”[11]

To get that lovely cup of coffee in the 1700s, you just needed to purchase the beans, roast them, grind them, and then boil them.

Equipment

As the drinking of coffee moved from the coffee-house to people’s homes, a group of tableware became associated with the drink.  Central to this tableware was the coffeepot and cups.  One of the earliest representations of these items is found in a 1674 woodcut showing an English coffeehouse where men are drinking from porcelain cups without handles and coffee is being served from a metal or earthenware jug.  Later, a print from 1710 shows coffeepots with a long straight spout and small annular porcelain bowls cups.[12]  Initially, these coffees pots and cups looked quite similar to the ones used to serve tea but, over time, they began to differ in appearance to what we today would recognize as two distinct serving sets.

The prevailing but inconclusive theory as to why the two pots changed shape is that the countries of origin of each drink played a part in the style of the tablewares.  Essentially, coffeepots and cups resembled those used in Arabic coffee houses while tea pots and tea cups resembled those used in Chinese tea rituals.[13]

Revolutionary Coffee

We know how colonial Americans made coffee and how they drank coffee but how did coffee become a revolutionary drink that Americans, who were once English, came to prefer over tea, Britain’s national drink?  The answer, in a word, is taxes.  The Tea Act of 1773 was created by the British government to bailout the financially troubled East India Company (EIC). [14]  The government told the Company that they could ship tea directly to the colonies, duty-free.  The EIC would get rid of loads of tea that was piling up in their London storerooms.  Colonists would get tea that was cheaper than the illegal stuff smuggled in.  Everyone should have been happy.  But everyone wasn’t.  The tea the Company was selling to the colonists would still be taxed under the Townshend Acts.  If the colonists purchased it, they would be indirectly accepting Parliament’s right of taxation without representation.[15]

Tea became an emblem of British oppression and a boycott of the drink became a revolutionary act.  Rejecting British culture, patriotic associations gave less than hospitable “tea parties” in Boston and Yorktown for merchants who continued to sell the politically incorrect brew.[16]  Whether politicians or housewives, Americans up and down the colonies joined the boycott and vowed to never serve tea in their homes.[17]

A Society of Patriotic Ladies

“A society of patriotic ladies, at Edenton in North Carolina” printed for R. Sayer & J. Bennett on March 25, 1775 in London. This satirical print shows American women pledging to boycott English tea in response to Continental Congress resolution in 1774 to boycott English goods. Credit: Library of Congress.

As John Adams wrote to his wife, “Tea must be universally renounced and I must be weaned, and the sooner the better.”[18]  However, the colonists still needed their caffeine and coffee stepped up to do its patriotic duty.  Consumption of coffee soared and played a small role in the creation of a new American identity. More than a drink, it became a sign of independence and unity in the midst of revolution and upheaval.[19]

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

Sources

Breen, T. H. The Marketplace of Revolution. Oxford: University Press, 2004

Broadbent, Humphery. The Domestick Coffee-Man, Shewing The True Way of Preparing and Making of Chocolate, Coffee, and Tea. London, 1722

Clark, F. (2009) Chocolate and other Colonial Beverages, in Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage (eds L. E. Grivetti and H.-Y. Shapiro), John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, NJ, USA

Felder, Paula. “George Washington’s Fredericksburg: The Fredericksburg Scene in 1755,” Map in the Free Lance-Star, July 3, 2004.

Goodwin, Mary. “The Coffee House Historical Report, Block 17, Building 34: The Coffee-House of the 17th and 18th Centuries,” Colonial Williamsburg Foundation Library Research Report Series – 0050 (1956): http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/View/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports%5CRR0050.xml#p12

Jamieson, Ross W. “The Essence of Commodification: Caffeine Dependencies in Early Modern World.” Journal of Social History, Vol 35, No2 (2001): 269-294

 

Regelski, Christina, “The Revolution of American Drinking,” http://ushistoryscene.com/article/american-drinking/

Root, Waverly et al., Eating in America (New York: Ecco, 1981)

Smith, Andrew F., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 2013, p 266

Ukers, William H. All About Coffee. England: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1922

Ukers, W.H. “The Early Preparation of Coffee.” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol 2 (1919): 353-356

Witkowski, Terrence H. “Colonial Consumers in Revolt: Buyer Values and Behavior during Nonimportation Movement, 1764-1776,”Journal of Consumer Research Vol. 16, No. 2 (Sep., 1989), pp. 216-226

[1] Ukers, 107

[2] Ibid, 133

[3] Ibid, 105

[4] Regelski, http://ushistoryscene.com/article/american-drinking/

[5] Goodwin, http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/View/index.cfm?doc=ResearchReports%5CRR0050.xml#p12

[6] Felder, GW’s Fredericksburg; Ukers, 689

[7] Broadbent, p 8-9

[8] Ukers, “Early Preparation of Coffee”, 354

[9] Ukers, 695

[10] Broadbent, p 11

[11] Broadbent, p 11

[12] Jamieson, 285

[13] Ukers, 602; Jamieson, 285

[14] Breen, T.H. pg 298-301

[15] Ibid, pg 235-239

[16] Clark, p 276

[17] Root, p 127

[18] Smith, p 266

[19] Witkowski, p 218

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