Café society was the name given to the “Beautiful People” and “Bright Young Things” who gathered in fashionable cafes in New York, Paris, and London beginning in the 1890s.
But the history of cafes goes back much farther.
During the middle ages, coffeehouses spread across the Ottoman Empire, starting in what is now Saudi Arabia, then opening in Syria, Egypt, and Istanbul.
Describing the Persian coffeehouse scene in the 17th-century, French traveler Jean Chardin wrote:
People engage in conversation, for it is there that news is communicated and where those interested in politics criticize the government in all freedom and without being fearful since the government does not heed what the people say.
Chardin noted that games like chess and checkers were played, along with poets and preachers telling stories in verse or as moral lessons.
Trade with the Ottoman Empire brought coffeehouses to Europe via the Republic of Venice in around 1629, with the first coffeehouse in England opening in Oxford in 1652.
Here, at what is now the Grand Café in Oxford, 17th-century luminaries gathered to discuss a whole range of ideas based on reason—what we now refer to as the Enlightenment.
Whether you visit alone to think and contemplate, or to join friends and chat about life, work, and the ways of the world, the next time you settle in at Starbucks or Costa Coffee or a host of other modern cafés, take a moment to pause and reflect on what these places actually represent.
They are where our modern ideas of liberty, progress, tolerance, and fraternity were born.
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