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Brewing new gathering houses in Colonial America.

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

The coffee house in America grew out of the demand for “exotic” beverages which included coffee, tea and chocolate.

Coffee, tea, and chocolate were imported to Europe in 1610, and as a result, 17th and 18th century London became home to a thriving tea and coffee drinking scene. This importation of what were considered “exotic” beverages, created a dramatic revolution in drinking habits among Westerners, who had routinely began their day with a mug of beer or ale. Celebrated by some, deplored by others, these stimulating brews gave rise to a number of important social institutions, such as the coffeehouse, the tea garden, and the ritual of afternoon tea. At first valued for their curative powers, they were soon counted among the necessities of daily life.

Coffee, tea, and chocolate were introduced into North America almost simultaneously in the later part of the 1600s. By the mid-1700s, coffee and tea were becoming staple drinks for early Americans. Colonial Americans quickly adopted the taste for these imported beverages and their fashionable tableware. Colonial coffeehouses, following the London model, became powerful social catalysts; centers for trade and politics.

The most expedient way to get a cup of coffee in Colonial America was the coffee-house, which usually was a mixture of café, tavern, and inn. Colonial coffee houses usually offered meals, alcoholic beverages, chocolate and lodging. A French term for such an inn was cafe, derived from the word coffee.

Even Fredericksburg, Virginia, had its own coffeehouse. As historian Paula Felder notes, “In 1751, Charles Julian of Norfolk, a baker, opened a coffee house and was granted an ordinary license. When he joined the new Masonic lodge in 1756, the meetings were held ‘at brother Julian’s’ until the lodge meetings were moved to the new Town House in 1763. The coffee house remained a prominent gathering place for many years. A ceremonial luncheon was given here in honor of George Washington in February 1784 on his first visit after the Revolutionary War.”

However, coffee-houses were not always a socially acceptable place for everyone. Nor were they always the most convenient way to get that much sought after cup of java. As the desire for coffee heightened, it made its way into the homes showing up on the breakfast table, in-between meals, and after dinners.

In the 1700s, coffee was generally purchased in the form of bags of green beans from a local merchant. The first step was to roast the beans to a dark brown color. Next, and before grinders were popular, most colonial Americans used a mortar and pestle to pound the beans into a coarse powder. The last step was to brew the beans, whether by boiling or infusion.

To learn more about the history of this particular sign, please see the “Trade and Tavern Signs” link at the top of the web page.


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