Why were coffee houses were so different in 19th century?



I am quite curious about the old London coffee house culture. Why don’t we have it today? Could we recreate it? Do we have it today in another form? Have they been mythologised? Is it an example of the September effect?

It’s talked about as being a place where relative strangers socialised and had substantive conversations on politics and philosophy that changed the history of ideas whereas today they are places to be “alone together”.

My best guess is that clientele were so filtered by opportunity/access such that they resembled a business cafeteria or a private members club more than a public venue. I guess the closest thing today might be a subject specific meetup. I suppose that if trying to recreate one, you might want to base it around the service of a novel stimulant that can’t be found elsewhere that encourages frenzied socialisation. MDMA cafe anyone?

The cost of the coffee must have been a filtering effect.

If you’ve never had coffee before, then you’re going to be very energized.

I imagine today that most people are habituated to caffeine, and the psychostimulant effect is too muted for people to be yelling about philosophy at each other.


Closest thing today would be a renowned university, where people from across the globe specializing in a variety of disciplines are expected to discuss these topics. However, there was the added bonus of actual shared work experience in those coffee shops, so the discussion was probably friendlier. Those discussions are probably more filtered by access now, unless of course you follow the right people on Twitter.

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See Stefan Zweig World of Yesterday on Vienna coffee houses before the Great War.

Cocooning part of recent changes (dusk in autumn blogger) - decline in violence and virtual connection substitutes for IRL.

But I think it’s the same path of development Fidonet and Usenet News took. You had to be quite unusual to want to get involved and to gain access and yes maybe it cost some money but that wasn’t the main factor. But they died because too crowded - nobody goes there any more. Influx of AOL users.

Same thing happens with bars, restaurants, nightclubs, members clubs.

Unusual people create a scene, then it takes off and it’s eventually killed by people interested in other things than the original motivation for it.

People that would have held forth in coffee shops - they probably have other outlets now!

I think also maybe access to news was important.

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