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Café Culture History, Part 2: Café Culture and the Age of Enlightenment

By Magda Romanska

The first American coffee house opened in Boston in 1676. Right away, beginning in the late seventeenth century, coffee houses in Boston and New York served as auction houses for commodities and real estate. Beginning in 1729, a coffee house was located next to the Merchants Exchange in New York, and in 1752 the newly erected Exchange building also hosted the Exchange Coffee Room. Another famous New York Merchants’ Coffee House was located at the end of Wall Street near the market square where African slaves and European indentured servants were customarily sold at the auctions. During the American Revolution, the function of the coffee houses changed as they became political meeting and planning places for the American Revolutionaries.

In Paris, the first coffee house was opened in 1672 by the same Pasqua Rose who brought coffee to London. His monopoly on the Paris coffee house business lasted until 1694 when Café Procope opened. Located on rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, in Paris’s 6th arrondissement, Café Procope is considered to be the oldest coffeehouse in Paris in continuous operation. When in 1689 the Comédie française was moved across the street, Café Procope became known as the “theatrical” café. Throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, the Procope served as the favorite gathering place for the members of the French Enlightenment with Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot as its regular guests. Procope’s other famous patrons included Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. It has been suggested that the Café Procope was the unofficial birthplace of the Encyclopedié, the first modern encyclopedia and the Enlightenment’s most conspicuous accomplishment.

As a result of the upper class flight to salons from the cafés, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Parisian coffee houses became gathering places for what contemporary American philosopher Michael Warner calls “subaltern counterpublics” – members of marginal groups: artistic and literary bohemians, sexual pariahs, and those operating on the borders of legality. Spending their times in coffee houses—often to escape their unheated apartments—many painters and writers of the era depicted the complex and seductive café life in their artworks and novels. In 1870s, for example, both Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet made a series of drawings and sketches of Parisian café night life, illustrating all of its multilayered glory, from its glamor, decadence and allure to the fundamental isolation of its many lone attendees looking to connect. In fact, during the period of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, the Parisian coffee house culture became a primary subject for the newly emerging Impressionists, including Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Auguste Renoir, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.

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