The Women’s Petition Against Coffee (1674)

This oft quoted pamphlet is probably the most famous of the many declarations issued for and against coffee in the last four hundred years. However misconceptions still hang over it.

Starting with Pasqua Rosee’s pamphlet extolling the virtue of his new brew, freshly arrived on the streets of London in 1652, the printing presses turned out a great deal of literature on coffee during its golden age in London (1652-1730). Whilst most of this talked of what coffee could cure – essential advertising for a new product – coffee again encountered great resistance. In London it was not the rulers who complained, but the breweries. Beer was the Englishman’s drink up until this point, beer for breakfast, lunch and dinner and coffee was an afront to them.

Coffee houses however were something else. They were a new space, with new rules that governed behaviour within them. Much is made of the sober and intellectual discussion that went on in these “Penny Universities”, the one place in society where status held less control over actions and interactions. Their growth within London was unprecedented. The first satirical review of them appeared in 1661, less than a decade after Rosee first opened his little shack. A Character of Coffee and Coffee Houses was published, and perhaps written, by a book seller named John Starkey. The opening of it is concerned with those missing social boundaries: “Here is no respect of persons… That great privilege of equality is only peculiar to the Golden Age, and to a Coffee-house.”

The literature was not just an effort to entertain and understand, but also to provide a balancing opinion to the huge wealth of publishing praising coffee. Scientific curiousity around coffee itself was the subject of publications such as The Vertues of Coffee, a collection of the writings of Bacon, Sandys, Parkinson, Howell and Blount on the subject, published in 1663. In reply you may find A Maiden’s Compaint against Coffee published in the same year.

The claims for coffee would inevitably become more and more extravagent, leading to a more extravagent satire. Thus the Women’s Petition Against Coffee was published in 1674. The author remains anonymous, writing as “A well-wisher”. I suspect the reason that this document has lasted as long as it has is simply down to how filthy it is. I’ve read a great deal of author’s descriptions and a number seem revel in the cheap and bawdy humour like small children who have just learnt to swear. Sadly most of them miss completely that it is a piece of satire, and not a genuine petition. Though it is written to resemble one there are a number of “small” clues, but I think many writers prefered to imagine a London in the 1670′s full of double-entendre’s and cheap puns.

Aside from the cruder sections there are complaints that the men will “usurp on our Prerogative of Tatling” and “half a doozen of them will out-babble and equal number of us at Gossipping“. The pamphlet claims that though men talk of politics, and essential put the world to right, they never actually do anything about it. However, these genuine satirical points are seemingly lost under the barrage of complaints:

“we can Attribute to nothing more than the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called COFFEE, which Riffling Nature of her Choicest Treasures, and Drying up the Radical Moisture, has so Eunucht our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind Gallants, that they are become as Impotent, as Age, and as unfruitful as those Desarts whence that unhappy Berry is said to be brought.”

The pamphlet is a lot of fun. Prayers that “That they no more run the hazard of being Cuckol’d by Dildo’s” are entertaining, but it is time people stopped wheeling out a little comedy smut and pretending that it is something of historical importance.

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