- The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse
Coffeehouses are central to much of the contemporary historiography of early-modern public life, especially to studies that emphasize the public sphere as a defining feature of "bourgeois" or protoliberal society. Cowan exploits a vast array of sources about coffeehouses and coffee in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain to provide a detailed, comprehensive picture that corrects some of the generalizations that abound in the literature. He makes two major points in reference to the public sphere. First, coffeehouse culture was not a creation of a bourgeoisie seeking an accessible space in which to form public opinion outside the ambit of aristocratic or court society, but rather a construct of the "virtuosi," the genteel accumulators of knowledge and exotic experience who have recently become a focus of historical attention as contributors to the formation of modernity. Cowan argues that coffee itself initially became popular in the seventeenth century because of its adoption by the virtuosi, whose example produced a fashion that was more widely adopted by a bourgeoisie in the process of developing a cultural persona.
Second, Cowan shows that, contrary to Habermas' view, coffeehouses were not places separated from the competition and interests of everyday political and economic life where dispassionate discussion of public matters could take place.1 The fact that they were intimately connected to a wide range of commercial, social, and political networks was the major reason for their importance as public spaces. Writers such as Joseph Addison proposed a model of dispassionate rationality for coffeehouse behavior, but the reality was much more varied, partisan, and, at times, passionate. Both the model and the reality contributed to the creation of the modern public, but in much more complicated ways than Habermas and others have suggested.
This is a rich book, both in the depth of the material that Cowan has assembled about early modern British coffeehouses and in the range of interpretive issues that he is able to address through the material. For [End Page 442] example, he explains the growth in the consumption of products such as coffee not as a result of a "consumer revolution" derived from an expanding bourgeoisie but as an outcome of the confluence of many factors, especially the invention of a new form of social distinction by the virtuosi. Although the overall point about consumption is not new, Cowan shows in great and convincing detail how the process worked.
The approach taken in this book is one that has found increasing favor with early-modern historians—to collect evidence relevant to a particular institution or event from as many sources and as many perspectives as possible and to employ it to criticize standard interpretations, both narrow and broad. Cowan uses this approach to good advantage, although he might have pursued the question of the bourgeoisie more vigorously. What he is describing is not really the bourgeoisie as an extant category taking a practice (coffee drinking) and an institution (the coffeehouse) from the virtuosi so much as a bourgeoisie actually constructing itself around cultural patterns connected with coffee consumption. This point aside, Cowan has made a major contribution to the historiography of the public sphere, of consumption, and of early-modern society in general.
1. Jürgen Habermas, Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, Mass., 1989; orig. pub. 1962).