Business and Labor

New England Coffee Houses: From Fad to Revolution to Fraud

Coffee probably first arrived in New England in 1614 when John Smith sailed up the coast on an exploratory voyage. New England coffee houses took a bit longer to arrive.

The coffee bean, first cultivated in Ethiopia, started out as primarily a drink of the Muslim world. The intrepid Smith encountered it during his time in Turkey and helped spread the word. The drink gained popularity across Europe in the early 1600s. By 1652 the brew had moved out of the kitchens of England, where beans were mashed with mortar and pestle, and into coffee houses. Over the next 20 years, they would number more than 3,000 in England.

First New England Coffee House

In America, Dorothy Jones, who immigrated to Boston from Wales, needed a way to make a living. There is no record of coffee coming over to New England on the Mayflower, but the ship did bring a mortar and pestle that would have been used to make coffee powder.

new england coffee houses

Painting of an early London coffee house.

Coffee was one of many of the drinks a patron at an early colonial tavern could purchase, along with wines, ciders, and chocolate. But colonists eagerly adopted the popular trends of their home country, and England was mad for coffee houses.

So in 1670, Jones received a license from the government announcing her new venture: “Mrs. Dorothy Jones, the wife of Mr. Morgan Jones, is approved of to keepe a house of publique Entertainment for the selling of Coffee & Chochaletto.”

Morgan Jones, Dorothy’s husband, was a minister and school teacher who moved about from one colony to another, leaving Dorothy to raise funds for her own needs. She capitalized on the coffee trend in Europe, which had already arrived in New York. Four years later, she would add wine and cider to her menu.

From Dorothy’s experiment grew coffee houses throughout New England, though they were difficult to distinguish from taverns in their offerings. Back in the mother country, coffee houses became hotbeds of political discussion. Patrons were admitted for a penny, received unlimited refills and were immersed in the news of the world shared by the assembled public there.

Coffee House Politicians

Wary of the revolutionary ideas brewing in the coffee houses and spouted by the “coffee house politicians,” Charles II tried in vain to squash them out of existence. In the colonies, meanwhile, the coffeehouses (which sold as much alcohol as coffee) also became political.

The British Coffee House, which dated to the 1690s, became the scene of one of New England’s more well-known fights in the run-up to the revolutionary war. The Green Dragon tavern was the hangout of the agitators who opposed British colonial policy, such as lawyer James Otis. Loyalists hung out in the British Coffee House.

James Otis by Henry Blackburn

In 1769, the Loyalists lured Otis to the British Coffee House, and he got whacked on the head with a cane for his views. Otis was never the same man after. Sensing the winds of change, however, the British eventually changed its name, rebranding itself the “American Coffee House.”

Exchange Coffee House

Over the years coffee houses came in all flavors, from the grandest to the lowest. Probably the largest, most expensive coffee house ever built, however, was also in Boston. The Exchange Coffee House was the brain child of Andrew Dexter, Jr. At seven stories tall, it counted as a skyscraper in the early 19th century.

Dexter envisioned a palace of commerce. Some would come to drink. Others would come to trade information about shipping and foreign conditions. And, most importantly, Dexter wanted to establish a trading floor for bank notes.

exchange

The Exchange Coffee House

Unfortunately, Dexter was a fraud. In 1808, currency was issued by individual banks, based upon the gold and silver they held. People traded and valued bank notes based upon a bank’s reputation for solvency. A trader might make a sharp profit buying a discounted note and redeeming it for its full value in gold or silver.

Running short of funds, Dexter came up with a scheme for financing his vision. He began taking over banks in remote parts of New England and issuing bank notes far in excess of their assets. He thought no one would ever redeem the notes and he could have unlimited capital.

In 1807, Thomas Jefferson placed an embargo on British goods, throwing New England into a depression. As a result, holders of some of Dexter’s notes tried to exchange them for their face value in gold or silver. Lacking funds, bank after bank collapsed. As news of Dexter’s scheme spread, his bank notes became worthless.

Dexter fled to Canada and his coffee house became a white elephant for its new owners. It limped on as a banquet hall and coffee house, but burned in 1818.

Thanks to: All About Coffee By William H. Ukers. This story last updated in 2021.

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