Boston - running on coffee since the 1600s

When you're in Boston, you won't go far without seeing a Dunkin Donuts and you'll notice more than a few people ambling around town with their cups in hand. But coffee and coffeehouses as an integral part of daily life is not a modern condition, they were an important part of early Boston, too. In the late 1600s, coffeehouses began to rise in popularity in London. By as early as 1688, coffeehouses modeled after those could be found in Boston and continued to grow in number in the 1700s. Throughout the summer months, stop by to see documents related to early coffeehouses in the library and archives exhibit case in the Old State House. For those of you that can't make it downtown, I've highlighted two of the displayed documents in this post.

Petition from Joseph Ballard for a liquorlicense, 1754 (MS0119/DC1137)

Early coffeehouses and taverns were somewhat similar in nature, though coffeehouses specialized in coffee, tea, and chocolate and originally banned gambling and alcohol.  As they evolved, coffeehouses did begin to serve alcohol, but they remained a meeting place for men to conduct business and discuss current events, politics, and commerce. One of those coffeehouses was the British Coffee House, which was located on Long Wharf at the end of King Street (now State Street), just down the road from the Old State House.  As its name suggests, in the 1760s and 1770s it was a place where those who were loyal to the king would feel welcome to gather.  On display is a petition to Boston selectmen in support of Joseph Ballard’s request for a license to sell “spirituous liquors” at the British Coffee House.  The petition notes that the house is a meeting spot for societies and it would be of public benefit for it to sell liquor.  The line between taverns and coffeehouses was sometimes blurry, but generally speaking, coffeehouses were gathering places to discuss business while taverns were a venue for fun and entertainment.

Indenture agreement, July 21, 1812 [page 1](MS0190/03-04)

A bit later, the Exchange Coffee House was a hub of activity in Boston, though it was only in existence from 1809 through 1818, when it was destroyed in a fire. However, in the early 1800s, the seven-story building was one of the largest and tallest in the city.  The Exchange Coffee House was more than just a coffeehouse; its public rooms included a large hall, topped with a dome, which served as a merchant’s exchange, and it was also one of the only hotels in Boston in the early 1800s. Another distinguishing feature of the Exchange Coffee House was that it maintained a reading room.  The 1812 document on display is an indenture agreement between the proprietors of the Exchange Coffee House and John Jones, the innkeeper.  The agreement established that a certain room in the building should be furnished and appropriated to be a reading room, which had a selection of political and commercial documents, journals, and newspapers.  Local merchants and patrons of the Exchange Coffee House who paid a yearly subscription were welcome to use the reading room.  Much like today’s coffeehouses, the reading room and coffeehouse at the Exchange served as a place where people could gather to exchange ideas and discuss current events.

There is much more to the story of the Exchange Coffee House, to learn more, check out

The Exchange Artist: A Tale of High-Flying Speculation and America's First Banking Collapse

by Jane Kamensky.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager