Coffee, the Viagra of the 17th Century

The very, very gendered seventeenth century coffee house
coffee650.jpg
The earliest known print of a coffee shop, dated to 1674 (Public Domain Review)

Today, coffee consumption is linked (a little dubiously) to all sorts of positive outcomes. Just last week, a study correlated increased coffee consumption to a lower risk of suicide.

But a few centuries ago, coffee was linked, even more dubiously, to an, um, different kind of positive outcome.

Over at the Public Domain Review, Matthew Green tells of the early modern London coffee shop scene. Coffee was a fast hit in England: a single "coffee shack" opened in 1652, and, two years later, it was selling 600 "dishes" of coffee a day.

The journalist Tom Standage has written extensively about the similarities between seventeenth-century coffee shop culture and modern social networking, down to the cantankerous contemporaneous critiques against both. But I'd never heard of the Women's Petition Against Coffee before, nor the riposte that followed it. Green writes:

No respectable women would have been seen dead in a coffeehouse. It wasn't long before wives became frustrated at the amount of time their husbands were idling away "deposing princes, settling the bounds of kingdoms, and balancing the power of Europe with great justice and impartiality", as Richard Steele put it in the Tatler, all from the comfort of a fireside bench. In 1674, years of simmering resentment erupted into the volcano of fury that was the Women's Petition Against Coffee. The fair sex lambasted the "Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE" which, as they saw it, had reduced their virile industrious men into effeminate, babbling, French layabouts. Retaliation was swift and acerbic in the form of the vulgar Men's Answer to the Women's Petition Against Coffee, which claimed it was "base adulterate wine" and "muddy ale" that made men impotent. Coffee, in fact, was the Viagra of the day, making "the erection more vigorous, the ejaculation more full, add[ing] a spiritual ascendency to the sperm".

Green's full history, "The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse," can be read at the Public Domain Review.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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