23 November 2003
Coffeehouses and 'public man'
As information centres, the coffeehouses naturally were places in which speech flourished. When a man entered the door, he went first to the bar, paid a penny, was told, if he had not been to the place before, what the rules of the house were (e.g., no spitting on such and such a wall, no fighting near the window, etc.) and then sat down to enjoy himself. That in turn was a matter of talking to other people, and the talk was governed by a cardinal rule: in order for information to be as full as possible, distinctions of rank were temporarily suspended; anyone sitting in the coffeehouse had a right to talk to anyone else, to enter into any conversation, whether he knew the other people or not, whether he was bidden to speak or not. It was bad form even to touch on the social origins of other persons when talking to them in the coffeehouse, because the free flow of talk might then be impeded.
The turn of the 18th Century was an era in which outside the coffeehouse, social rank was of paramount importance. In order to gain knowledge and information through talk, the men of the time therefore created what was for them a fiction, the fiction that social distinctions did not exist. Inside the coffeehouse, if the gentleman had decided to sit down, he was subject to the free, unbidden talk of his social inferior.
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What's important, as well, is what the coffeehouses were not: i.e. alehouses, where the passions dominated. (Most coffeehouses were all-male affairs, in fact, to avoid the obvious distractions of Mrs Miggins and her pies.) But you're right about the way in which class was temporarily negated within that space, perhaps because the coffee-house was something of a Whiggish creation, where one gained authority from present actions rather than inherited or acquired rank.
Posted by: nick sweeney at 30 Nov 2003 21:06:09