A “Demitasse” History of Britain’s Temperance Coffee Taverns
I have lived in southern New England for a while now, and it used to be that I could count on winter’s being, well, wintry. Snow fell and it stuck around. In recent years, however, the winter weather has tended to be at once monotonous and unsettled: alternately gloomy and blustery for days, wet, sometimes icy, and unseasonably warm. I’ve taken to calling it “Novembril,” this new super-season of six months’ duration that offers a tedious blend of winter and autumn. It will be followed by the yin to its yang, Maytober, which has its own dubious charms.
Anyway, I’ve been beguiling Novembril Sundays by visiting art museums. I do it to steady myself against the turn Mother Nature has taken — not to mention similar turns taken in world events and national affairs. I take great comfort in the simple fact that beautiful things were once made and people once delighted in them. And, if the crowds I’ve jostled with are any indication, I’m not the only one who does.
At some point, however, delight morphs into exhaustion. Hours of marveling at Grecian urns, admiring Dutch landscapes, and studying portraits by Sargent makes my head swim, my eyes smart, my legs ache. Art drunk, I jokingly call this enervated state. And the only thing that sobers me up is a trip to the museum coffee shop.
Oddly enough, that’s exactly the purpose coffee shops once served: to sober people up, be it from too much Titian or too much Tanqueray. It so happens that the latter was much more commonly the case. There got going in late nineteenth century Britain a great “coffee tavern” movement whose aim it was to get working stiffs to give up tumblers of gin for steaming hot cups of joe. Members of the temperance league joined with altruistic businessmen, and together they became the movement’s driving force. As one proponent of the movement crowed, it enlisted “the best brains, the warmest hearts, and the most liberal purses in the kingdom.” With this formidable combination behind them, coffee taverns sprouted up all throughout Great Britain. Some larger cities housed hundreds of them.
From these liberal purses sprang The Temple Arms, which an 1877 issue of Punch described as “crowded by customers of all the classes inhabiting that locality.” The Temple Arms sold coffee for half a penny and tea for a penny, along with “cake, bread-and-butter, and other eatables.” Yet, a visit to The Temple Arms was no grab-n’-go proposition. It’s comfortable, well-lit rooms were stocked with newspapers, periodicals, and various light reading to induce customers to tarry over a refill or two.
Other taverns offered attractions even more enticing. London’s East Finchley Coffee Tavern featured an “American bowling-alley” and a parlor for playing bagatelle, a forerunner of pinball. If pool was your game, you could head to the Coffee Tavern and Seaman’s Institute in Portsea, located in the south of England. If billiards weren’t for you, the establishment also boasted a reading room with cozy chairs and abundant literature of interest to soldiers and sailors. And, if all the coffee you downed should put an edge on your appetite, you could grab one of several meat-and-potato dishes, all of which combined “quality with cheapness.” It seems improbable that frequenters of coffee taverns could ever grow sleepy, but any who did could stay the night. The Coffee Tavern and Seaman’s Institute offered lodging in the form of small cabins outfitted with feather beds and pillows, and thick blankets. Customers averred that the arrangement made for a “regular little nest of convenience and comfort.”
The coffee taverns of London and elsewhere welcomed members of both sexes. Despite this, most British women tended to prefer establishments reserved for them only. One London coffee tavern catered to the “multitudes of shop girls and seamstresses” who otherwise had “no regular dining place.” This meant that they had but “very scanty means of getting food in the very scanty time … allowed them for getting it.” Subjected to the tempo of life in which commerce and mechanization were fully in command, these shopgirls and seamstresses looked to the tavern not only for stimulating beverages but also for nourishing fare to see them through their work shifts. The tavern happily provided them both.
Great Britain’s temperance coffee taverns found equivalents on the other side of the Atlantic. Humble carts often took the place of whole establishments in the United States, for example. These carts were run by altruistic sorts, such as Dr. John Wilberforce Kennion. A journalist turned charity worker and preacher, Kennion ran five coffee carts in Brooklyn, New York. Kennion dispensed his coffee free of charge, along with free bread, soap, and job leads. In a single year, 1888, Kennion gave away 520 gallons of coffee and 400 bars of soap. Perhaps more significantly, he found jobs for 550 men. And, for Thanksgiving of that year, he treated all who wanted to a dinner of turkey, chicken, vegetables, pie, bread, and, naturally enough, coffee — all thanks to private donors sympathetic to the good doctor’s cause.
Whether coffee truly proved a greater enticement than booze, I cannot say. I suspect, however, that it wasn’t so much the coffee and cake as the compassion that caused ordinary workers to turn away from drink and despair. I’m sure they were heartened by seeing that others took an interest in their pain and suffering. More than anything, it was the cup of human kindness that consoled them.
In honor of the coffee taverns of yesteryear, then, here’s a recipe for coffee cake from The Temperance Cook Book (1887).
Coffee Cake (No. 2)
One cupful of butter, one cupful of sugar, one cupful of molasses, one pound of raisins, one teaspoonful each of soda, cinnamon and all spice, one-half nutmeg, three eggs (it can be made with one or two eggs). Sift the soda in the molasses. Excellent.