“The Virtues of Coffee” Explained in 1690 Ad: The Cure for Lethargy, Scurvy, Dropsy, Gout & More

Accord­ing to many his­to­ri­ans, the Eng­lish Enlight­en­ment may nev­er have hap­pened were it not for cof­fee­hous­es, the pub­lic sphere where poets, crit­ics, philoso­phers, legal minds, and oth­er intel­lec­tu­al gad­flies reg­u­lar­ly met to chat­ter about the press­ing con­cerns of the day. And yet, writes schol­ar Bon­nie Cal­houn“it was not for the taste of cof­fee that peo­ple flocked to these estab­lish­ments.”

Indeed, one irate pam­phle­teer defined cof­fee, which was at this time with­out cream or sug­ar and usu­al­ly watered down, as “pud­dle-water, and so ugly in colour and taste (sic).”

No syrupy, high-dol­lar Mac­chi­atos or smooth, creamy lattes kept them com­ing back. Rather than the bev­er­age, “it was the nature of the insti­tu­tion that caused its pop­u­lar­i­ty to sky­rock­et dur­ing the sev­en­teenth and eigh­teenth cen­turies.”

How, then, were pro­pri­etors to achieve eco­nom­ic growth? Like the own­er of the first Eng­lish cof­fee-shop did in 1652Lon­don mer­chant Samuel Price deployed the time-hon­ored tac­tics of the moun­te­bank, using adver­tis­ing to make all sorts of claims for coffee’s many “virtues” in order to con­vince con­sumers to drink the stuff at home. In the 1690 broad­side above, writes Rebec­ca Onion at SlatePrice made a “litany of claims for coffee’s health ben­e­fits,” some of which “we’d rec­og­nize today and oth­ers that seem far-fetched.” In the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry are asser­tions that “cof­fee-drink­ing pop­u­la­tions didn’t get com­mon dis­eases” like kid­ney stones or “Scur­vey, Gout, Drop­sie.” Cof­fee could also, Price claimed, improve hear­ing and “swoon­ing” and was “exper­i­men­tal­ly good to pre­vent Mis­car­riage.”

Among these spu­ri­ous med­ical ben­e­fits is list­ed a gen­uine effect of coffee—its relief of “lethar­gy.” Price’s oth­er beverages—“Chocolette, and Thee or Tea”—receive much less empha­sis since they didn’t require a hard sell. No one needs to be con­vinced of the ben­e­fits of cof­fee these days—indeed many of us can’t func­tion with­out it. But as we sit in cor­po­rate chain cafes, glued to smart­phones and lap­top screens and most­ly ignor­ing each oth­er, our cof­fee­hous­es have become some­what pale imi­ta­tions of those vibrant Enlight­en­ment-era estab­lish­ments where, writes Cal­houn, “men (though rarely women) were encour­aged to engage in both ver­bal and writ­ten dis­course with regard for wit over rank.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“The Vertue of the COFFEE Drink”: An Ad for London’s First Cafe Print­ed Cir­ca 1652

How Caf­feine Fueled the Enlight­en­ment, Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion & the Mod­ern World: An Intro­duc­tion by Michael Pol­lan

Philoso­phers Drink­ing Cof­fee: The Exces­sive Habits of Kant, Voltaire & Kierkegaard

How Human­i­ty Got Hooked on Cof­fee: An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry

The Birth of Espres­so: The Sto­ry Behind the Cof­fee Shots That Fuel Mod­ern Life

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.“The Virtues of Cof­fee” Explained in 1690 Ad: The Cure for Lethar­gy, Scurvy, Drop­sy, Gout & More



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