A brief history of coffee in the Georgian era

Oxford holds the distinction of being the location of the first coffee-house in England; an establishment trading under the sign of the Angel was opened in 1650, acting as a centre for gossip, news and academic discussions in equal measure. Coffee-houses were soon open in London and elsewhere and their popularity grew. Their heyday was the eighteenth-century. In time, they adapted to meet the requirements of their clientele; Lloyd’s Coffee House was a favourite haunt of merchants and sailors and so shipping information was shared and deals conducted. It is better known today as the insurer, Lloyd’s of London. The Grecian Coffee-House in Devereux Court just off Fleet Street catered for the Whigs while the nearby Rainbow attracted Freemasons and French refugee Huguenots. Slaughter’s (later Old Slaughter’s) establishment, on St Martin’s Lane, boasted an artistic clientele while the British Coffee-House on Cockspur Street was popular with the Scots in London and privy to Jacobite plotting. Some, such as Moll King’s coffee-house in Covent Garden, catered for lower tastes.

A Mad Dog in a Coffee House, Thomas Rowlandson, 1809.
A Mad Dog in a Coffee House, Thomas Rowlandson, 1809. Yale Center for British Art, The William K. Rose and Eugene A. Carroll Collection

So, how to make the perfect cup of Georgian era coffee? Mrs Maria Eliza Rundell, in A New System of Domestic Cookery, 1808, gives us a recipe.

To make Coffee

Put two ounces of fresh ground coffee, of the best quality, into a coffee-pot, and pour eight coffee-cups of boiling water on it; let it boil six minutes, pour out a cupful two or three times, and return it again; then put two or three isinglass-chips into it, and pour one large spoonful of boiling water on it; boil it five minutes more, and set the pot by the fire to keep it hot for ten minutes, and you will have coffee of a beautiful clearness.

Fine cream should always be served with coffee, and either pounded sugar-candy, or fine Lisbon sugar.

If for foreigners, or those who like it extremely strong, make only eight dishes from three ounces.  If not fresh roasted, ay it before a fire until perfectly hot and dry; or you may put the smallest bit of fresh butter into a preserving pan of a small size, and, when hot, throw the coffee in it, and toss it about until it be freshened, letting it be cold before ground.

Isinglass is a clarifying collagen, produced from the swim bladders of fish, prior to 1795 from sturgeon but after that also from cod; nowadays we’d use gelatin.  Lisbon sugar, otherwise known as clayed sugar, was manufactured in the colonies of France, Spain and, as the name suggests, Portugal.  Wet pipe-clay was laid on top of the sugar and water poured over which removed the molasses.  Sugar candy is formed of large crystals of sugar, today known as rock candy or sugar.

Girl with a tray, Philip Mercier, late 1740s.
Girl with a tray, Philip Mercier, late 1740s. The State Hermitage Museum

Coffee, then as now, was a popular breakfast drink and an alternative to chocolate. Mrs Rundell also gives us a recipe for the ideal breakfast coffee.

Coffee Milk

Boil a desert-spoonful of ground coffee, in nearly a pint of milk, a quarter of an hour; then put into it a shaving or two of isinglass, and clear it; let it boil a few minutes, and set it on the side of the fire to grow fine.

This is a very fine breakfast; it should be sweetened with real Lisbon sugar of a good quality.

Breakfast by Jean-Étienne Liotard, c.1752.
Breakfast by Jean-Étienne Liotard, c.1752. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen – Alte Pinakothek München

While tea was often drunk from a dish, or saucer, coffee (and chocolate) was usually – but not exclusively – drunk from cups with or without handles (often referred to as a coffee can). Saucers of the time were generally deeper than those we use today, and where coffee was tipped from the cup into the saucer, it was possibly in order to cool the drink more quickly.

The Woman Taking Coffee by Louis Marin Bonnet, 1774.
The Woman Taking Coffee by Louis Marin Bonnet, 1774. © President and Fellows of Harvard College

An advert for a sale of chinaware in 1750 suggests that handled coffee cups were sold without saucers and that those with saucers were predominantly intended for breakfast.

A neat assortment of CHINA WARE, consisting of Table and Tea Table China, Soup Dishes, Fruit or Salad ditto, Bowls of all Sizes, Tea Pots, Milk Pots, Spoon Boats, Variety of Tea Cups and Saucers, Handled Coffee Cups, Coffees and Saucers, or Breakfast Cups, Chocolates and Saucers, Water Plates, Bread and Butter, or Breakfast ditto, Quart and Pint Mugs, Coffee Pots, Sauce Boats; with several other Pieces too tedious to mention.

Newcastle Courant, 28th July 1750

We’ve all heard of reading your fortune in the tea leaves in the bottom of your cup, but coffee grounds prove just as useful.

Telling fortunes in coffee grounds, 1790.
Telling fortunes in coffee grounds, 1790. Lewis Walpole Library

Here’s luck in the bottom, dear Jane, only see!

My dream & my coffee in a wedding agree.

But ah! my dear Sister, what fate me befall.

I fear I can wait, for no wedding at all.

In coffee ‘tasseography’ it is generally considered unlucky to read your own cup. If you want to know how to read fortunes in coffee, it is explained in the book, The Fortune-teller; or, Peeps into futurity by Louisa Lawford. Wavy lines are good, straight ones bad, circles denote money and human figures are positive omens, as are dogs but other animals are not so lucky.

Three Women Telling Fortune in Coffee, 1780s, Pehr Hilleström.
Three Women Telling Fortune in Coffee, 1780s, Pehr Hilleström.
(Stockholms universitets konstsamling, J. A. Berg Collection #158)

In the 1770s, advertisements began to appear for English coffee, made to a balsamic recipe from herbs, barks and plants which extolled a myriad of health benefits for those who partook. A typical letter of fawning recommendation, published in regional newspapers alongside information on where the coffee could be bought, described the grateful customer as previously suffering from headaches, drowsiness, trembling, belching, wandering pains which flew from one part of the body to another, loss of appetite and more. A canister of this magical coffee, and a cup morning and evening, instantly banished all the complaints. (It perhaps was akin to dandelion coffee, a known coffee substitute.)

Mrs Ellen Sharples by Rolinda Sharples, c.1814.
Mrs Ellen Sharples by Rolinda Sharples, c.1814. Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Towards the end of the eighteenth-century, in Britain coffee declined somewhat in popularity, losing out to tea which was cheaper and simpler to make.


5 thoughts on “A brief history of coffee in the Georgian era

  1. Thanks for this fun read! I have done a little coffee research of my own as one of my current characters begins as a coffee porter in London, with Lloyd’s being a regular stopping point. My own London ancestors of the time must have been around the corner at the Rainbow…


  2. Dear ladies: As always, a thorough research and a nice way to put it. Mind you the boiling of the coffee must have ruined it making it too strong and bitter unless they drank it with plenty of sugar, a practice that, I noticed in my visits to England, is observed when drinking tea.


  3. The link to the fortune telling hints is fascinating too – who knew that to dream of a ragout was to predict mischief made by a talkative woman, and sardines, of treachery? Do you think they just made them up off the top of their heads? 🙂


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