- Coffee-House Libraries in Mid-Eighteenth-Century London
On a visit to London in April 1773, James Boswell was searching for one of his essays that had appeared in The Public Advertiser five years earlier, submitted under the pseudonym 'The Rampager'. In an attempt to find the relevant number, he called into the office of its publisher, Henry Sampson Woodfall, in Ivy Lane near St Paul's Churchyard, where he discovered that, after such a long interval, no copies remained. Consequently, Boswell notes in his diary, he was advised to go round the corner to the Chapter Coffee-House, where, he writes, 'I found there my old essays.' Having read them, Boswell concluded that the Chapter Coffee House was 'an excellent place'.1 This establishment in Paternoster Row was well known for its extensive connections with the book trade, being frequented by writers, printers, and booksellers. It was also well known for providing a wide range of newspapers and other reading matter for its clientele, bound up in volumes for safe-keeping. The young Irish antiquary Thomas Campbell, visiting London in 1775, noted in his diary that the Chapter was 'remarkable for a large collection of books, & a reading Society &c'. When he strolled in on 'a sweet soft & fair day' in March, he described how he 'subscribed a shilling for the right of a years reading, & found all the new publications I sought, & I believe what I am told that all the new books are laid in —some of which to be sure may be lost or mislayed.'2
Coffee-houses were one of the most characteristic social institutions of eighteenth-century London, and have long been associated with the city's intellectual culture. The Huguenot writer Guy Miège observed in 1699 that
To improve Society, the life of Recreation, the English have, besides their usual and friendly Meetings called Clubs, the Conveniency of Coffee-Houses, more common here than any where else. In which all Comers intermix together, with mutual freedom; and, at a very easy Rate Men have the Opportunity of meeting together, [End Page 3] and getting Acquaintance, with choice of Conversation, besides the Advantage of reading all foreign and domestic News.3
As Miège suggests, the coffee-houses were notable for their distinctive sociability, in which people of different kinds and status socialized in a convivial manner as if equals. The coffee-houses were celebrated for their open and unregulated discussion and debate, though contemporaries often disagreed about the nature of these discussions: some thought them impertinent and idle, consumed by gossip and scandal; according to others, they ranged over politics and religion in a serious and sententious manner. As the spy-turned-travel writer John Macky summarized in 1714, in conversations such as these 'a Stranger tastes with the same Pleasure the universal Liberty of Speech of the English Nation'. Alongside these conversations, contemporaries observed, coffee-houses afforded their customers printed matter, particularly newspapers and periodicals. Macky noted that 'In all the Coffee-Houses you have not only the Foreign Prints, but several English ones with the Foreign Occurrences, besides Papers of Morality and Party-Disputes.'4 This combination of openness, conversation and news made the coffee-house a microcosm of the new urbanized culture of London.
The coffee-house has asserted a curious hold over historians' accounts of urban culture in the eighteenth century. Whig social historians, such as Thomas Macaulay and George Trevelyan, lauded the coffee-house for its convivial egalitarianism and its close engagement with popular debate.5 In recent decades, many scholars have been drawn to Jürgen Habermas's account of the role of the coffee-houses in the emergence of the 'public sphere' —elaborated and contested by a range of scholars from Peter Stallybrass and Allon White to Terry Eagleton, Larry Klein, Emma Clery, Brian Cowan, and myself, who have analysed the numerous conventions governing this convivial sociability, most obviously the exclusion of women.6 [End Page 4] Historians of science such as Bob Iliffe and Simon Shaffer have adapted the coffee-house sociability argument in their account of the networks of intellectual and technological exchange in Restoration and early-eighteenth-century London...