Social Networking in the 1600s

1600s men at coffeehouse

By Tom Standage from the New York Times Sunday Review:


Men enjoying a drink and a chat in a 17th-century coffeehouse. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

LONDON — SOCIAL networks stand accused of being enemies of productivity. According to one popular (if questionable) infographic circulating online, the use of Facebook, Twitter and other such sites at work costs the American economy $650 billion each year. Our attention spans are atrophying, our test scores declining, all because of these “weapons of mass distraction.”

Yet such worries have arisen before. In England in the late 1600s, very similar concerns were expressed about another new media-sharing environment, the allure of which seemed to be undermining young people’s ability to concentrate on their studies or their work: the coffeehouse. It was the social-networking site of its day.

Like coffee itself, coffeehouses were an import from the Arab world. England’s first coffeehouse opened in Oxford in the early 1650s, and hundreds of similar establishments sprang up in London and other cities in the following years. People went to coffeehouses not just to drink coffee, but to read and discuss the latest pamphlets and news-sheets and to catch up on rumor and gossip.

Coffeehouses were also used as post offices. Patrons would visit their favorite coffeehouses several times a day to check for new mail, catch up on the news and talk to other coffee drinkers, both friends and strangers. Some coffeehouses specialized in discussion of particular topics, like science, politics, literature or shipping. As customers moved from one to the other, information circulated with them.

The diary of Samuel Pepys, a government official, is punctuated by variations of the phrase “thence to the coffeehouse.” His entries give a sense of the wide-ranging conversations he found there. The ones for November 1663 alone include references to “a long and most passionate discourse between two doctors,” discussions of Roman history, how to store beer, a new type of nautical weapon and an approaching legal trial.

One reason these conversations were so lively was that social distinctions were not recognized within the coffeehouse walls. Patrons were not merely permitted but encouraged to strike up conversations with strangers from entirely different walks of life. As the poet Samuel Butler put it, “gentleman, mechanic, lord, and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece.”

Not everyone approved. As well as complaining that Christians had abandoned their traditional beer in favor of a foreign drink, critics worried that coffeehouses were keeping people from productive work. Among the first to sound the alarm, in 1677, was Anthony Wood, an Oxford academic. “Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none follow it now in the University?” he asked. “Answer: Because of Coffea Houses, where they spend all their time.”

Meanwhile, Roger North, a lawyer, bemoaned, in Cambridge, the “vast Loss of Time grown out of a pure Novelty. For who can apply close to a Subject with his Head full of the Din of a Coffee-house?” These places were “the ruin of many serious and hopeful young gentlemen and tradesmen,” according to a pamphlet, “The Grand Concern of England Explained,” published in 1673.

All of which brings to mind the dire warnings issued by many modern commentators. A common cause for concern, both then and now, is that new media-sharing platforms pose a particular danger to the young.

But what was the actual impact of coffeehouses on productivity, education and innovation? Rather than enemies of industry, coffeehouses were in fact crucibles of creativity, because of the way in which they facilitated the mixing of both people and ideas. Members of the Royal Society, England’s pioneering scientific society, frequently retired to coffeehouses to extend their discussions. Scientists often conducted experiments and gave lectures in coffeehouses, and because admission cost just a penny (the price of a single cup), coffeehouses were sometimes referred to as “penny universities.” It was a coffeehouse argument among several fellow scientists that spurred Isaac Newton to write his “Principia Mathematica,” one of the foundational works of modern science.

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Skull and Crossbones Sugar Cubes

Sugar skull on spoon

From Crnchy.com:

sugar skull bones

Does your morning coffee sometimes taste like death warmed over? Is that last cup of coffee in the pot at the office ominous? You can make that coffee 100% sinister by adding these amazing skull and cross bones sugar cubes to your cup. The cool sugar cubes are not available in stores, but instead were created by the brilliantly creative mind and fingers of designer Snow Violent.

Can you imagine looking down into your coffee cup and having that evil looking skull staring back at you. You watch as the bones float and bob in your cup slowly dissolving in the murky darkness of your cup’s evil potion. Now that is the way to start the day.

sugar skull bones

sugar skull bones

sugar skull bones

sugar skull bones

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Did drinking insane amounts of coffee make these artists great?

Collage of autor pictures and coffee stains on paper

Collage of autor pictures and coffee stains on paperBy at Slate.com:

Coffee! It is the great uniting force of my Daily Rituals book. It’s what brings together Beethoven and Proust, Glenn Gould and Francis Bacon, Jean-Paul Sartre and Gustav Mahler. This should hardly be surprising. Caffeine is the rare drug that has a powerful salutary effect—it aids focus and attention, wards off sleepiness, and speeds the refresh rate on new ideas—with only minimal drawbacks. And the ritual of preparing coffee serves for many as a gateway to the creative mood. Balzac wrote:

Coffee glides into one’s stomach and sets all of one’s mental processes in motion. One’s ideas advance in column of route like battalions of the Grande Armée. Memories come up at the double, bearing the standards which will lead the troops into battle. The light cavalry deploys at the gallop. The artillery of logic thunders along with its supply wagons and shells. Brilliant notions join in the combat as sharpshooters. The characters don their costumes, the paper is covered with ink, the battle has started, and ends with an outpouring of black fluid like a real battlefield enveloped in swaths of black smoke from the expended gunpowder. Were it not for coffee one could not write, which is to say one could not live.

Balzac certainly couldn’t have maintained his extreme lifestyle without the stuff. He worked in bursts of frenzied writing—or, as one biographer put it, in “orgies of work punctuated by orgies of relaxation and pleasure.” During the work periods, his writing schedule was brutal: He ate a light dinner at 6 p.m., then went to bed. At 1 a.m. he rose and sat down at his writing table for a seven-hour stretch of work. At 8 a.m. he allowed himself a 90-minute nap; then, from 9:30 to 4, he resumed work, drinking cup after cup of black coffee. According to one estimate, he drank as many as 50 cups a day.

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