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The Representation of Femininity in the Free Press and the Role of Women in the ‘Public Sphere’ of London’s Coffee House Culture (1650-1750)

Cristina Peces Moral

Coffee, the popular caffeinated drink, has an intriguing history in Britain. This exotic beverage arrived in England in 1650, and since then coffee houses have been deeply rooted in our social consciousness as the origin of many modern institutions and corporations. With the emergence of a new middle-class bourgeois society, London coffee houses were associated with the freedom of speech, thinking and the free press. The growth of coffee houses followed the urban and social expansion of the City of London, from their golden era in the old walled city, to their degradation during the 1750s in the new western developments.

‘Coffee-woman’ was a derogatory term used during the seventeenth and eighteenth-century England for women who owned or worked in coffee houses. This dissertation study investigates the gendered representations of ‘coffee-women,’ developing a feminist architectural history of coffee houses as gendered spaces, which works across literary, culture and urban history.

I analyse how the government had the desire to control the freedom of speech in coffee houses; whilst the free press had the aspiration of keeping their culture as true to their origins as possible. There should not be any single image of coffee houses, as well as coffee house-keeping, that deserves to linger most strongly in general social consciousness, as they were as different as the areas in which they flourished.

From an urban perspective, it has become evident that the coffee house dissemination process followed the expansion of London itself after the ‘Great Fire,’ growing from the walled city towards the new developments of the west. Due to the coffee house cultural and social attachment to the bourgeois society, once the east and west social disconnection was evident, this rapid western expansion was natural and foreseeable. They spread in space, but also in time and codes of conduct. As in a fluid state, they wandered through the urban space, growing and reinventing themselves as a mirror of their own society. The first coffee houses emerged inside the city during the mid 1600s; the growth continuing along the axis of Fleet Street and The Strand, hand by hand with the development of the free press; and finally made their appearance in Charing Cross and Covent Garden by the 1730’s. A period stretching almost 80 years.

During this interval, London social structure was transformed from a production-based order into a new consuming-focused society. In such manner, as long as coffee houses were gaining popularity in this new London folklore, they initiated the transition from ‘virtuosi’ centres of knowledge to places of commercialized leisure. As such, coffee houses ceased being a problem for governments and the state, and started being a headache for the honourable and respectable men that until that point enjoyed this well-mannered ‘public sphere.’ Periodicals that were once enthusiastic about these institutions, manifested in their pages the ‘degrading’ cultural tendency of these once dignified establishments.

The issue regarding the non-equality of genders was challenged and questioned by writers and philosophers during the first half of the seventeenth century. The masculine ‘public sphere’ against the feminine private one, was confronted by both men and women in writings and pamphlets. While these tendencies in France culminated in the French Revolution, the fierce dominion that intellectual life had over the English ‘public sphere,’ clashed with the endemic lack of education for women. With an education focused on the household and pleasing the male sex, women were not considered cultured enough, and were identified with shallow interests with no place inside the early academic life of coffee houses. Nonetheless, there were few objections to women working or owning such places if they found themselves in need of sustenance, and so widows and lower-class women began to manage coffee houses. In the earliest stages of the coffee house world, there was little evidence of disapproval or controversy about any gender related issue.

With the process of the commercialisation of the coffee house, the polite society that had appeared with them shifted. ‘Effeminacy’ taking over coffee houses began to be a major concern, and periodicals started to condemn the appearance of ‘fops’ and ‘beaus’ in their premises. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the so called ‘effeminate men’ were placed by periodicals in a position between the male and the female figures, beginning a ‘feminization’ of the coffee house that was against the natural order of its society. The ‘virtuosi’ culture was being replaced by shallow behaviours and superfluous conversations usually attached to the female lifestyle and the private sphere. Coffee houses notably connected with this kind of ‘feminine’ attributes were more commonly found in the Covent Garden area, with Will’s and Tom’s Coffee Houses (both in Russell Street) singled out in the Tatler and other periodicals as the places of gathering for the ‘beaus’ of the town.

This new type of clientele and their narcissistic behaviour became relevant for the situation of women in the public sphere and ‘coffee-women’ in particular. Not interested in matters of state or trade, they centred their activities in pleasure, leisure and attention. By the turn of the new century, ‘coffee-women’ – sexualized, and objectified as a part of the coffee house culture by these men – began to publicly denounce the treatment they endured in the coffee house press.

The issue of the respectability in the public sphere became more pronounced in society at the same time as the consumerist culture began to rise from the mid 1600s until the end of the eighteenth century. The politeness and reputability of the coffee house made it possible for women to enter in some fashion into the commercial and business world of the city, even if they never were full equally-educated members of the ‘public sphere.’ But as more women joined the public life of coffee houses, the shift to more capitalistic pleasure-seeking social norms of London’ society had turned these establishments into downgrading places. By the 1750s, coffee houses were common in Covent Garden, and the area became the perfect background to create a disreputable image of the public woman. The conjunction of these situations initiated a regression of women’s involvement in the ‘public sphere,’ and the creation of a revised ideal of the feminine figure, ‘the angel of the house,’ preventing the fulfilment of the proto-feminist ideas of the mid seventeenth century.

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