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A Place to Drink and Be Social: How Today's Coffee Shop Came to Be

Rose Pozos Brewer


It's hard to imagine our society without coffee shops. Whether we go there for a quick latte, plug in a laptop or settle in with a conversation with a friend, for many people going to a specific location has come to be an integral part of drinking coffee and socializing.

Yet not many people think about how coffee shops came to play this role. After all in Good Will Hunting, Will infamously said, "Maybe we could get together and just eat a bunch of caramels...when you think about it, it's just as arbitrary as drinking coffee."

For Swarthmore graduate Rose Pozos-Brewer, it's not that arbitrary. Her 2015 anthropology and sociology thesis covered the development of coffee houses. Through research and independent observation, she explored the coffee shop as a center for urban sociability, a place where we can engage in private discourse in a public space.

The story of human coffee ingestion, says Pozos-Brewer, starts with an origin myth. According to the myth, an Ethiopian shepherd noticed his goats eating a plant and starting to dance. The shepherd tried the plant, became alert, and brought it back to his people.

There may be no historical proof of this story, she says, but there is proof of our acculturation to it at a later stage. "We do know that coffee [drinking] first came about in the Islamic world, and it was adopted as a social beverage because it was non-alcoholic."

Pozos-Brewer explains that coffee made its way through the Middle East and was picked up by "virtuosos," European intellectuals who were curious about other cultures, popularized it in the mid 1600s. She says that some historians describe the English coffee houses as "taverns without the alcohol." 

Most of the first American coffee houses were established in Boston and then spread through the colonies, "and became centers for business and political debates," Pozos-Brewer explains. She also notes that in the twentieth century, Americans tended to drink instant coffee; the product that was marketed and distributed through the world wars.

The first espresso machines encouraged  a different type of coffee consumption with fresh roasted coffee beans and new milky espresso-based drinks. These advances inspired the "second wave" of coffee consumption in the 1970s and 80s, with business like Peets and Starbucks, according to Pozos-Brewer. 

The "third wave" of coffee shops, which we find ourselves in today, she explains, "was a reaction to that mass commercialization, and it's characterized by small, independent coffee shops that are quirky, that are also very conscious of the supply chain, of where coffee comes from."

Coffee shops are a unique space for social interactions - a place "where the public life and the private life are blurred together and they create this flexible space that is subject to the rules and the norms that the owners and the patrons put in place," says Pozos-Brewer.

Maayan Silver has been a reporter with WUWM’s News Team since 2018.