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Coffee Houses in Colonial Boston

Tea in London was first announced via a coffee house advertisement in the September 2, 1658 edition of The Gazette, a London weekly news pamphlet of seven pages, the first four of which declared the momentous death of Oliver Cromwell.

That Excellent, and by all Physitians approved, China Drink called by the Chineans, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alais [sic] Tee, is sold at the Sultaness-head, a Cophee-house in Sweetings Rents, by the Royal Exchange, London.

Tea surely had no better timing for the announcement of the drink and its pleasures, and neither had the new Chinese import a better venue nor audience, for the readers of The Gazette were intensely focused on the latest news and novelties of the day. The proprietor of the Sultaness Head Coffee House made doubly sure of spreading the news by running the same advertisement a fortnight later in a competing weekly, the Mercurius Politicus, published September 23-30. Printed on the last pages of the news pamphlets, these trailers were the first public notices of brewed tea dipped from a barrel.

Green Dragon
Green Dragon Tavern and Coffee House

It is not definitely known when the first coffee was brought to America, but it is reasonable to suppose that it came as part of the household supplies of some settler, between 1660 and 1670, who had become acquainted with it before leaving England. Or it may have been introduced by British officers who, in London, had made the rounds of the more celebrated coffee houses of the day.

The history of coffee in colonial America is so closely interwoven with the story of inns and taverns that it is difficult to distinguish the London-style coffee house from the colonial public house where lodgings and liquors were to be had. Coffee had strong competition from heady wines, liquors, and imported teas, and consequently it did not attain the vogue among the New Englanders that it did among Londoners of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

Mortar for Grinding Coffee
Mortar for Grinding Coffee Beans

Most of the coffee houses were established in Boston, the social center of New England. While Plymouth, Salem, Chelsea, and Providence had taverns that served coffee, they did not achieve the fame of some of the more celebrated coffee houses in Boston.

The Green Dragon was the most celebrated of Boston’s coffee-house taverns. It stood on Union Street, in the heart of the town’s business center from 1697 to 1832, and figured in practically all the important local and national events during its long career. Red-coated British soldiers, colonial governors, bewigged crown officers, earls and dukes, citizens of high estate, plotting revolutionists of lesser degree, conspirators in the Boston Tea Party, patriots and generals of the Revolution – all these frequently gathered at the Green Dragon to discuss their various interests over their cups of coffee, tea, and stronger drinks. In the words of Daniel Webster, this famous coffee-house tavern was the “headquarters of the Revolution.”

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Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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