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Archaeologists Discover 500 Artifacts from 18th-Century British Coffeehouse

Among the finds were cups, saucers, sugar bowls, coffee tins and an impressive collection of teapots

The finds from Clapham’s Coffee House, some of which are pictured here, included teapots, wine glasses, and clay pipes. (Cambridge Archaeological Unit)
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Archaeologists at the University of Cambridge have published details of a fascinating excavation that turned up some 500 artifacts from an 18th-century British coffee joint. As David Behrens of the Yorkshire Post reports, Clapham’s coffeehouse was located on a site now owned by St. John's College in Cambridge, and its cellar was packed with the remains of cups, saucers, teapots and other vessels that helped serve up tasty treats to patrons. Researchers have compared the establishment to Starbucks—you know, if Starbucks also served eel and calf’s foot jelly.

Between the 1740s and 1770s, Clapham’s was run by William and Jane Clapham. The couple's coffeehouse was a popular spot among residents of Cambridge and students of the university. According to a Cambridge press release, the joint was even mentioned in a poem that ran in a student publication of 1751: “Dinner over, to Tom’s or Clapham’s I go; the news of the town so impatient to know.”

Researchers believe that Clapham’s cellar was filled with items in the late 1770s, when Jane decided to retire (William had since died). The site was rediscovered after St. John’s College commissioned an archaeological survey of the area around its Old Divinity School. The excavation revealed the most extensive collection of early coffeehouse artifacts that has ever been discovered in England, which has in turn shed new light on centuries-old coffee culture.

Like modern-day coffee spots, Clapham’s appears to have offered a range of comforting hot beverages. Archaeologists found coffee cups, saucers, sugar bowls, milk and cream jugs, an impressive collection of 38 teapots, and cups for holding chocolate drinks. “[C]hocolate was served with a frothy, foamy head,” the Cambridge press release explains, which required tall cups that researchers could distinguish from other types of vessels. The team also discovered utensils and crockery that would have been used to make pastries, tarts and other desserts.

In many ways, Clapham’s was less like a café and more like an inn, Craig Cessford of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit tells the BBC. Animal bones found at the site suggest that patrons were enjoying hearty meals of mutton, beef, pork, hare, chicken goose, fish and eel. The excavation also turned up a large number of feet bones from immature cattle, leading experts to believe that calf’s foot jelly, once a popular dessert in England, was a house specialty.

It also seems that people at Clapham's came for a boozy time; amidst the various drinking vessels, archaeologists found a robust selection of wine bottles, wine glasses, and tankards. The discovery “suggests that the standard view of early English coffeehouses, as civilized establishments where people engaged in sober, reasoned debate, may need some reworking,” according to the press release, which also makes note that no evidence of reading materials were found at the site.

Cessford, the Cambridge Archaeologists, posits that establishments like Clapham’s were “perhaps at the genteel end of a spectrum that ran from alehouse to coffeehouse.”

The Brits first started sipping on coffee in the 16th century, according to the release. Turkish merchants are credited with bringing coffee to London, and the drink soon became all the rage, though imbibing on the stuff was not a particularly pleasurable experience at the time. “Whilst the taste of 17th century coffee was not very palatable – indeed, it tasted quite disgusting according to accounts of the time – the caffeine in it and the ‘buzz’ it provided, proved quite addictive,” explains the website of Historic UK.

By the mid-18th century, there were thousands of coffeehouses dotted across the country. They were important social hubs, where people gathered to chat, conduct business and debate the news. But by the end of the 18th century, coffeehouses began to decline in popularity as another type of hot drink captured the public’s fancy: tea, the drink that would become a quintessential British pastime.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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