top of page

Penny Universities

A Renaissance

The eighteenth century deserves credit for a lot of things, philosophy, music, art, history, and inspiration for period dramas and romantic novels. But perhaps its most influential invention – and one that we still know and love today – is the coffee shop.

Late seventeenth-century England saw reduced import prices and higher wages that spurred demand for luxury goods such as coffee. Such demand was increased by how inexpensive a cup of the black stuff was compared to alcohol. This ensured that England became a nation of coffee drinkers as opposed to day drinkers (we soon picked it up again, don’t worry), and the sober environment of the houses in which the luxury import was sold allowed an intellectual revolution to be born from the humble bean.

It is reported that some of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers visited these coffeehouses, with figures like Rousseau, Voltaire and Isaac Newton finding their seats in London’s new enterprises. Abstaining from the sale of alcohol, Polite conversation a led to reasoned and sober debate on matters of politics, science, literature and poetry, commerce and religion, so much so that London coffeehouses became known as ‘penny universities”. To one establishment named Jonathan’s Coffee House, gentlemen of London met to trade and discuss, setting stock and commodity prices. The London Stock Exchange can trace its roots to this very coffeehouse in 1698. London’s intellectual sphere was, perhaps, only rivalled by that of Paris’ salons or Edinburgh’s literati, yet as the century progressed, coffeehouses found international favour.

Benjamin Franklin, writer, scientist, statesman, inventor and diplomat, is reputed to have been a regular customer at these houses, and valued the exchange of information and wisdom that took place over the inexpensive beverage. He believed that he could learn from anyone, and coffeehouses provided the means for social mobility that allowed all manner of folks to engage with this intellectual hub. Peddling Enlightenment ideas and values, coffeehouses became progressive hubs, allowing patrons of all classes, stations and gender. Recognising this, proprietors looked to further gain an edge on London society, with some offering additional products and services in conjunction with a cup of the hot stuff.

Newspapers, books and even printing presses were provided, encouraging patrons to distribute pamphlets, debates and ideas. Lectures were also held, with academics and the wider public coming to learn. They were the social networks of their day, defying class boundaries and facilitating exchanges of information. In fact, even the furniture was arranged around intellectual discovery, as coffeehouse proprietors thought longer tables would accommodate more people and therefore fuel greater discussions.

When Franklin was first exposed to London’s social nucleus in 1757, there were around 550 coffeehouses, but by the end of the 18th century, the great apparatus of social and literary life soon lost favour. There is much debate among historians as to why this is, but there is some agreement that the rise of tea and the introduction of the gentleman’s club forced the coffeehouse into submission. Government policy favouring trade with India and China also helped this decline, as encouragement to stimulate the demand for tea meant English society had a new favourite beverage.

But perhaps the 21st century offers us scope for a coffeehouse renaissance. Today’s coffee shops, such as Starbucks and Coffee #1, are sanctuaries for students and hybrid workers alike – especially during exam season! Although I don’t see Isaac Newton dissecting dolphins or Benjamin Franklin dishing out pamphlets, coffee shops provide a good environment for studying and working. In fact, half of what you’re reading was written in one of these establishments.

Yet we can go further. Creating hybrids between libraries and coffee shops might appeal to a new segment of coffee clients, creating an environment that fosters academic exploration, debate, and a blend between work and pleasure. Essays, reports and articles don’t get written unless fuelled by coffee consumption – I speak from personal experience – and so providing an environment where consumption and creation can take place is perhaps a future business model.

As the 18th century’s coffeehouses were each known for their different environments, Johnathan’s for trading, Lloyd’s for merchants and Rawthmell’s for science, our 21st-century coffee renaissance may see coffee shops centre around a specific field of exploration and inquiry. Take philosophy, for example. Philosophical texts from Plato to Wollstonecraft line the shelves that are made to look authentic, quotes that make you think deeply are chalked onto a blackboard wall, and a menu of beverages each named after properties that liken them to a certain aspect of philosophy; Existentialist Espresso, Aquinas’ Americano (make a note of these) and Hume’s Hot Chocolate (too far?). Customers at these subject-specific shops would feel like they are visiting a brand that speaks to them, and baristas would soon enhance the therapy that they already offer to regulars.

So, sit there, think it over – grab a coffee if you must – and mourn the loss of England’s coffeehouses while you think about how we can have a renaissance in blending a thriving intellectual sphere with social, borderline addictive, coffee consumption. Perhaps the 21st century will one day be remembered as the century that saw the resurgence of penny universities, although with inflation at 11.1%, I doubt they will be that cheap...


Edited and Reviewed by Tanish Bagga.


2,239 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page