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.
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.