The Dark (Roast) Ages: The Weird 1600s Law That Barred Women From Drinking Coffee
11:15 am, March 15th | by Rebecca Srulowitz
Walk into any coffee shop today and you’ll find legions of ladies. Whether they’re sipping a cappuccino while reading the paper, having a lively espresso-filled break with friends, or simply rushing in at 8am to inject some good old caffeine into the veins before work, women are dominating the coffee shop scene. Coffee shops are, arguably, the social and cultural mecca of our time. Walk any block in New York City and take the 5 Starbucks you pass along the way as proof enough.
Turns out, however, this whole women-love-coffee thing wasn’t always the case. Back in the day, women were banned—yes I said banned—from coffee shops.
Now here’s a little history lesson: when the British East India Company first brought the delicious brew to England from East Asia in the 17th century, it became immensely popular and spurred the creation of a number of coffee shops, then referred to as coffeehouses (one of a few pieces of 1600s lexicon cherished by all of Williamsburg). By 1675, there were over 3,000 coffee shops in England. Just to put that number into perspective: it’s the equivalent of all the Starbucks in Canada, Japan, and Great Britain combined.
These coffeehouses were popular for a reason. Men would gather to discuss science, philosophy, and politics, and they conducted business transactions in the (very) early form of the stock market. The coffeehouse, as opposed to today’s raucous mix of teenagers shouting over one another and strangers pushing each other in line, was a bastion of polite and mild mannered conversation. The idea was not for people to pontificate or to lecture one another, but it was a space where men politely engaged one another’s ideas. Great philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot met at these coffeehouses, a testament to the intellectual discourse that occurred.
If you’re feeling nostalgic for an older time, where people sat back with a cup o’ joe while simultaneously discussing the politics of the day and the meaning of life, keep in mind that women were excluded from partaking. But don’t think for a minute that these women took their exclusion from intellectual discourse lying down. Instead, they protested, putting out the “Women’s Petition Against Coffee” in 1674. You can read the document here. It’s actually pretty entertaining. This group of London women suggested that, by spending too much time in coffeehouses, men were becoming, in a word, effeminate. As these women so eloquently put it, “never did Men wear greater breeches, or carry less in them.” Harsh words, ladies. Harsh words.
Going one step further, these women blamed the “Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE, which Riffling Nature…has so Eunucht our Husbands.”
So there you have it. Men banned women from coffeehouses so women struck back, and in a not-so-subtle way. Clearly, times have changed and women can now drink as many double shot lattes as they like alongside any man, woman, or abominable vagrant. And who knows—maybe people nowadays do discuss the meaning of life in the Starbucks around the corner.