The Penny University

Today, many coffee house visitors come alone to read or with a small group of friends for intellectual conversation. They walk up to a counter, pay for their beverage and find a nice quiet corner to settle into. The ambiance in a modern coffee house is created with perhaps a fireplace, the sweet smell of flavored syrups, and mellow ballads flowing out of strategically placed speakers. The stimulating effects of caffeine give rise to the lovely humming of inspired conversation and the sound of frantic scribbles of a pencil upon paper. Should a person from eighteenth century London walk into this scene, they may not even recognize this evolved form of what they used to call a coffee house.

Interior of a European Coffee house,
1698. From Pim Reinders, Thera Wijsenbeek et al., Koffie in Nederland: Viereeuwen culturgeschiendenis,
(Zutphen: Walberg Pers; Deft: Gemeente Musea Delft, 1994), 64. (Amato, website)




18th Century Coffee House Scene. Hand colored, engraved image from an 1894 issue of Harper’s Weekly, titled "The Coffee-House Orator." (Prints old and rare, website)


Instead of paying for drinks, people in the eighteenth century were charged a mere penny to enter a coffee house. Once inside, the patron had access to coffee, the company of other customers, pamphlets, bulletins, newspapers, and news ‘reporters.’ These reporters were called "runners" and they went around the coffee houses announcing the latest news, like we might hear on the radio today (Pelzer). Before television advertisements and bulletin boards, people visited coffee houses to hear about the newest developments and business ideas.

One of the most unusual aspects of this environment was the eclectic groups of people that ran into each other at a coffee house. In a society that placed such importance on class and economical status, the coffee houses were unique because the patrons were people of all levels (Boulton 163). For example, a merchant could converse with a prominent businessman. Anyone with a penny could come inside. Students from the university’s also frequented coffee houses, often spending more time at the shops then at school (Ellis 182). It is easy to imagine the wide range of ideas that were produced as a result of this intermingling of people. The term “Penny University” is often used in reference to the eighteenth century coffee houses because of this reason. Coffee houses encouraged open thought and gathering of community. This environment, which was so conducive to intellectual discovery, could almost be called a school of social learning. To some people this was probably more of a school then rigid classrooms where people could not step out of a particular social role.


“There was a rabble going hither and thither, reminding me of a swarm of rats in a ruinous cheese-store. Some came, others went; some were scribbling, others were talking; some were drinking (coffee), some smoking, and some arguing; the whole place stank of tobacco like the cabin of a barge. On the corner of a long table, close by the armchair, was lying a Bible. Beside it were earthenware pitchers, long clay pipes, a little fire on the hearth, and over it the high coffee pot. Beneath a small bookshelf, on which were bottles, cups, and an advertisement for a beautifier to improve the complexion, was hanging a parliamentary ordinance against drinking and the use of bad language. The walls were decorated with gilt frames, much as a smithy is decorated with horseshoes. In the frames were rarities; phials of a yellowish elixir, favourite pills and hair tonics, packets of snuff, tooth powder made from coffee grounds, caramels and cough lozenges. Had not my friend told me that he had brought me to a coffee-house, I would have regarded the place as the big booth of a cheap-jack.”

Taken from Ned Ward's description of a coffee house in the 1700's. This information was found on a website by J. Pelzer.