J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, September 14, 2006

What Was the British Coffee-House Serving?

On Tuesday I mentioned the British Coffee-House, a landmark in pre-Revolutionary Boston where the Long Wharf met King Street. James Otis, Jr., and Customs Commissioner John Robinson had a violent tussle there in September 1769 which left Otis bleeding from a severe head wound.

Folks might wonder what a Boston coffee-house served in 1769. Kenyan dark roast? Shade-grown Colombian? Capuccino with a sprinkle of cinnamon? What did colonial Bostonians expect to find when they went into the British Coffee-House?

The short answer is:


My source for these remarks is a book by Boston-area historian David W. Conroy: In Public Houses: Drink and the Revolution of Authority in Colonial Massachusetts. It's a terrific study of a single aspect of eighteenth-century New England life—drinking establishments—that comes up with insights on changes in social policy, centers of political influence, and commerce.

David looked at two major sources to assess how much liquor coffee-houses served:
  • province records of who paid the most excise taxes, therefore who had sold the most alcohol.
  • probate inventories of the major coffee-house and tavern owners.
In particular, he examined records related to the Crown Coffee House, the most elaborately appointed tavern in Boston in the early 18th century. The owner from 1714 to 1725 was a man from Britain named Thomas Selby. At his death he owned two periwigs, “a number of coats and waistcoats, one of silk damask and one with gold buttons,” twelve shirts, and three pairs of silk stockings. So the Crown was one classy joint.

Excise taxes show that "Selby sold more distilled alcohol in the 1710s than any other tavernkeeper in Boston," David writes. Furthermore, “Selby’s inventory of alcohol, as opposed to coffee, is evidence that even genteel coffeehouses sold far more rum and wine than coffee.” At his death in 1725, he owned more than £1000 worth of wine, rum, brandy, and other liquors. Selby owned no fewer than eight silver punch bowls. In contrast, he owned only 38 pounds of coffee, a single copper coffee pot on a stand, and 32 "coffee dishes." We have to be careful about comparing applejack and oranges because we have the monetary value of the alcohol and the weight of the coffee, but it's obvious that Selby's coffeehouse sold a lot of liquor, and really functioned as a tavern for the upper class.

As for the later British Coffee-House, at his death proprietor Cord Cordis left 100 gallons of rum and 184 gallons of Madeira wine, plus 72 beer and wine glasses. There's no comparable figure on coffee, but it's obvious that "coffee-house" really meant "fancy and expensive bar." No wonder Robinson and Otis started swinging at each other's heads.


Chaucerian said...

I think some of my friends would call that "a social fight" -- a normal way of passing an evening -- too bad Otis got such a bad rap for it --

J. L. Bell said...

There's also some indication that the fight was a substitute for a duel. There had been an exchange of insults before.

Caning one's opponent was a way of showing contempt--that he wasn't enough of a gentleman to be worth dueling. (As in the attack on Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber before the U.S. Civil War.)

Both Otis and Robinson went to the British Coffee-House with canes, so they might have each planned to cane the other, or at least to respond in kind.

The "bad rap" Otis got was primarily on his head; apparently people could see a dent or scar afterwards. Robinson went into hiding and then sailed to England after the Boston Massacre, carrying documents telling Capt. Preston's side of the event. He seems to have happily settled on an estate in Wales.

Otis won a court case against Robinson, so the Whigs back in Boston could insist their man had won in the end. Since he was debilitated, however, the victory was Pyrrhic.

NC Paul&Melanie said...

I have a Mabel Ruth Otis is my family tree who was most likely born in New York State abt. 1897. Do you happen to know if she could be a discendent of James Otis and wife Ruth (Cunningham?)?

J. L. Bell said...

No idea on Mabel Ruth Otis, but the Otis family of Barnstable and Boston was at the top of early American society, and therefore likely to be better documented than most.