For nearly two decades, I dreamed of owning a coffee house complete with mahogany woodwork, a fireplace with leather wing-back chairs, the mingling scent of coffee and sweet pipe tobacco, and walls covered with shiny pennies, alive with the reflection of dancing flames. I would have called such a coffee house Penny University so as to attract dignified patrons and encourage stimulating conversation.
Three hundred years ago, in London, there were over three-thousand coffee houses that were sometimes referred to as penny universities because (according to Jean Gordon’s Coffee Recipes, Customs, Facts & Fancies) “they were great schools of conversation, the natural meeting place for wits, wags, poets and philosophers, their fascination depending on the fact that coffee stimulates the brain.”
So great a Universitie
I think there ne’er was any;
In which you may a Schoolar be
For spending of a penny.
To enter these penny universities cost a penny at the door, and two more pennies were charged for coffee and to contribute to the cost of newspapers and lights. Men spent so much time in these coffee houses that in 1674, their wives joined and formally petitioned against them to the extent that in 1675, Charles II officially suppressed coffee houses. It only lasted for eleven days, so great was the stir for a lack of communal coffee and poetic pontification!
Most coffee houses today pale in comparison to the images conjured of former times and places, and poets huddle at computers (coffee to the left) embracing cyber-conversation, sharing lines, trading critiques, and dreaming of penny universities.