This 17th-Century “Women’s Petition Against Coffee” Probably Wasn’t About Women, or Coffee

It probably wasn’t written by angry, sex-deprived wives–although stranger things have happened

A typical 17th-century coffeehouse scene. Controversial, right? Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

In the late 1600s, London coffeehouses were a preferred hangout for political men and writers.

“Unlike the tavern, the alehouse or the inn,” writes historian Brian Cowan, the coffeehouse “was a novel institution.” Although coffee-oriented gathering places had been common in the Arab world for hundreds of years, coffee was a new arrival to Britain in the 1600s. The first coffee-houses opened in the 1650s. By 1663, writes Matthew Green for The Telegraph, there were 82 coffeehouses in central London. Part of the reason, he writes, was their novelty. But with this rise came a backlash: In a hilarious pamphlet published in 1674, a group of women came out against the “newfangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called coffee.”

It’s difficult to tell if the writers of the The Women’s Petition Against Coffee were actually women, writes historian Steve Pincus, or if they were representing what women actually thought about coffeehouses. More likely, he writes, the satires were written in order to help make coffeehouses unpopular as they were perceived as sites of political unrest. (Charles II tried to ban the establishments in a year later.)

In the Women’s Petition, the supposed wives of coffee-drinkers bemoaned the fact that coffee-drinking was such an intellectual, effeminate pastime that it had rendered their husbands impotent and “as unfruitful as those deserts whence that unhappy berry is said to be brought.” (Coffee-growing lands are generally very rich and fertile.)  

"For can any woman of sense or spirit endure with patience," they wrote, "that when...she approaches the nuptial bed, expecting a man that ... should answer the vigour of her flames, she on the contrary should only meet a bedful of bones, and hug a meager useless corpse?"

The women's petition also complained that coffee made men too talkative: "they sup muddy water, and murmur insignificant notes till half a dozen of them out-babble an equal number of us at gossipping," the anonymous authors write. 

This 17th-Century
The cover page of 'The Women's Petition Against Coffee Representing to Public Consideration the Grand Inconveniences accruing to their SEX from the Excessive Use of that Drying, Enfeebling LIQUOR." Wikimedia Commons

The writers of The Mens Answer to the Womens Petition Against Coffee, tongue firmly in cheek, noted that far from making them impotent, coffee actually made them better husbands by “drying up” the “Crude Flatulent Humours” that caused them to fart in bed. Besides, they added, “the Coffee house is the Citizens Academy,” the writers pleaded, “where he learns more Wit than ever his Grannum taught him.”

It was just this facet of the coffeehouse that Charles II was afraid of. By this time, coffeehouses had been around in England for a few decades. Spreading from London, Pincus writes, the institution had made it as far as Scotland. During these decades, the British monarchy had been deposed during the English Civil War when Charles I was executed in 1649, and restored when Charles II was placed on the throne in 1660. It was a time when politics was a huge and touchy subject for everyone in English society, and the new king–mindful of what happened to his father–was eager to promote a return to old ways. Coffeehouses, to the king and his supporters, represented a new form of sociability that rose up in the years when England had no king, and should be stamped out. But in the 1600s, as today, it takes a lot to separate anyone from their coffee.

There was probably never a genuine war of the sexes around coffee houses. For women, historian Markman Ellis writes, coffeehouses offered a business opportunity. While it is true, as the satirists of the time wrote, that sex workers used coffeehouses to solicit work, they were far from the only women there. A number of coffeehouses were run by women, he writes, often widows, and women worked in them as servers or in other capacities.

Historians differ in their opinions as to whether women attended coffeehouses as customers–for instance, while Ellis does not believe they did, Pincus writes “there is little warrant for the claim that women were excluded from coffeehouses.” Although there may have been no hard-and-fast rule excluding women, obstacles such as public perception that linked women in coffee houses with sex work may have helped keep women from attending coffeehouses as guests in the same number as men.   However, as Pincus writes, the fact that women could and sometimes did attend these places just shows how much they were places of exchange between people of different backgrounds, leading to the creative and transgressive spread of ideas by these caffeine junkies.

This 17th-Century
There's a woman behind the counter of this 17th-century coffeehouse. Wikimedia Commons

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