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Café Culture History, Part 4: Boston

By Magda Romanska

Boston has always been the trendiest town in the U.S. and when it comes to coffeehouses, it’s no exception. Although the first man known to bring knowledge of coffee to North America was Captain John Smith in 1607, who was familiar with coffee, thanks to his travels in Turkey, the first-ever coffeehouse in America was actually opened in Boston by John Sparry. As Boston city records indicate, in October 1676 John Sparry was “aproued of by the select men to keepe a publique house for sellinge of Coffee.” But even before Sparry opened his first official coffeehouse, “Dorothy Jones was the first to be licensed [by the city of Boston] to sell ‘coffee and cuchaletto.’ This license is dated 1670, and is said to be the first written reference to coffee in the Massachusetts Colony. It is not stated whether Dorothy Jones was a vender of the coffee drink or of ‘coffee powder,’ as ground coffee was known in the early days.”¹

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Boston was the metropolis of the Massachusetts Colony and the social center of New England, so it is no surprise that the most prominent coffeehouses were established here in Boston. Boston coffeehouses were “generally meeting places of those who were conservative in their views regarding church and state, being friends of the ruling administration. Such persons were terms ‘Courtiers’ by their adversaries, the Dissenters and Republicans.” The coffeehouses also functioned as meeting spaces for business, politics, theatre, concerts, exhibitions and other secular activities.

The Boston Tea Party of 1773 was planned in one such coffeehouse, the Green Dragon, known by historians as the “Headquarters of the Revolution.” Located at that time on Union Street in Boston’s North End, the Green Dragon was a meeting place for the Freemasons, who used the first floor. The Green Dragon’s basement was used by several secret Revolutionary groups. The Sons of Liberty, the Boston Committee of Correspondence, and the North End Caucus each met there. The Boston Tea Party was planned there, and Paul Revere was sent from there to Lexington to warn the Revolutionaries about the approaching British army. In January 1788, a meeting of the mechanics and artisans of Boston that took place in the Green Dragon passed a series of resolutions urging the adoption of the Federal Constitution. Although the building was demolished in 1854, the current Green Dragon Tavern is located at 11 Marshall Street in Boston’s North End. Its website proudly proclaims that it is the “headquarters of the Revolution.”³

The Boston Tea Party was itself a resounding vote in favor of coffee. The citizens of Boston, “disguised as Indians, boarded the English ships lying in Boston harbor and threw their tea cargoes into the bay, cast the die for coffee; for there and then originated a subtle prejudice against ‘the cup that cheers,’ which one hundred and fifty years have failed entirely to overcome.”¹

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