Figure 1. A coffee plant (coffea arabica)… bordered by six scenes illustrating its use by man, coloured lithograph, c.1840. 225mm x 180mm. London, Wellcome Collection, 28052i (Public Domain Mark).
9th September 2023
by James Brown
Created at:
9th September 2023
James Brown
[click to copy]
Figure 1. A coffee plant (coffea arabica)… bordered by six scenes illustrating its use by man, coloured lithograph, c.1840. 225mm x 180mm. London, Wellcome Collection, 28052i (Public Domain Mark).

Coffeehouses were one of the most ubiquitous intoxicating spaces in eighteenth-century England, especially in its capital city (Withington et al, 2019); from the founding of the first establishments in London and Oxford in the 1650s, by 1734 there were 551 officially licensed establishments in the metropolis (Cowan, 2005: 94–5), while in 1722 the Scottish spy John Macky estimated there to be 8,000 coffeehouses, by a ‘modest computation’, across the capital (Macky, 1722: 313). As is now well-established within a vast and vibrant historiography, they were centres not just of caffeinated sociability, but of news-mongering, scholarship, epistolary culture, gaming and gambling, auctions and sales, sex work, shipping, mercantile activity, and high finance. But one question remains largely unanswered: what did they smell like?

Odeuropa Smell Explorer

Like the traditional inns, taverns, and alehouses they came to supplement and complement, early modern coffeehouses were highly stimulating environments that would have made a powerful impression upon the faculties of their customers. They appealed to the pleasures of the eye (they were extensively hung with portraits, landscapes, and woodcuts, were centres of spying, and sometimes hosted visual spectacles and cabinets of curiosities), and, despite their former reputation as polite environments for civil and sober conversation (Pincus, 1995), were notably noisy places. This ranged from the constant burble of gossip and virtuosic discussion – variously described as ‘jangling’ (Muri & Neudorf, 2023: 11), the ‘prattle of news’ (Anonymous, 1700), or ‘noisy tongues’ (Nugent, 1768: 71), and sometimes boiling over into raucous arguments and fights – to the ‘ratling noise of kettles, skimmers and ladles among the brasiers’ (Anonymous, 1663b), drumming and music, the ‘rattling’ of dice (Macky, 1722: 169), and the ‘clashing’ of snuffbox lids (Muri & Neudorf, 2023: 194).

Figure 1. A coffee plant (coffea arabica)… bordered by six scenes illustrating its use by man, coloured lithograph, c.1840. 225mm x 180mm. London, Wellcome Collection, 28052i (Public Domain Mark).

They were also highly aromatic. First and foremost would have been the smell of coffee itself, the result of almost 1,000 volatile organic compounds that make an impact on the olfactive epithelium (Yeretzian, 2010). Even in their raw and unadulterated state coffee berries are highly odoriferous – in 1859 the journalist George Sala described how the West India Docks on the Isle of Dogs were ‘strongly perfumed with coffee-berries’ (Sala, 1859: 55) – a pungency enhanced through subsequent processes of roasting (heating, stirring, and cooling), grinding, and boiling. The distinctive, bitter smell of this novel intoxicant was one of its properties widely remarked upon by early modern commentators. George Mainwaring, one of several learned travellers to encounter coffee in its native Ottoman, Persian, and Mughal settings, found it to be ‘nothing toothsome, nor hath any good smell’ (Cowan, 2005: 18). Indeed, the consensus, especially among the many critics of the coffeehouse, was that the smell of coffee was at best humdrum and at worst deeply unpleasant. According to an anonymous author in 1663 coffee had a ‘strong sent, but not aromatical’ (Anonymous, 1663c: 5), while one balladeer described its ‘fumes’ as ‘dull’ (Anonymous, 1681). More strident pundits went further, describing it as having the ‘essence of old shoes’ (Anonymous, 1663a), as ‘base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking, nauseous puddle-water’ (Anonymous, 1700), as ‘the scent from… Lucifer’s deep furnace, a stench to stifle virtue and good manners’ (Tatham, 1664: sig. D2v), and – in the especially vituperative Ale-Wives Complaint Against the Coffee-Houses – ‘both by tast and smell to be no better than a sirreverence, pulveriz’d and intermix [with] soot’ (Anonymous, 1675: 4). The anonymous author goes on to clarify that connotations of both excrement and ash are integral to coffee, as ‘one gives it the Hogo [smell], and t’other the colour’ (Ellis, 2004: 216). 


Whether figured as agreeable, neutral, or disgusting, coffee’s powerful fragrance would have permeated coffeehouse atmospheres. Visual representations of interiors, such as the one above, generally depict large and steaming vats or cauldrons suspended over open fires, in which the ground coffee beans and water were boiled together. These were invariably flanked by a battalion of copper, brass, or tin coffee pots in which the sediment settled in the brewed product before it was conveyed to customers, who consumed it – nearly always black – from individual porcelain or earthenware dishes. This early twentieth-century author described a London coffeehouse ‘choked with men and the thick odor of coffee’ (Dobie, 1921: 311). Like sound, smell is no respecter of architectural boundaries, and coffee’s nasal reach extended beyond the coffeehouse itself, rendering them immediately legible in the streetscape. The 1665 tract The Character of A Coffeehouse catalogued the ‘certain signs… which plainly do spectators tell/that in that house they coffee sell’, including the smell: ‘Some wiser than the rest (no doubt)/Say they can by the smell find 't out;/In at a door (say they) but thrust/Your nose, and if you scent burnt crust/Be sure there's coffee sold that's good/For so by most 'tis understood’ (Anonymous, 1665: 2). This was sometimes figured as ‘noisome’ and a public nuisance, as in 1657, when James Farr of the Rainbow coffeehouse was presented by the wardmotes of St Dunstan’s for the ‘evil smells’ emanating from his establishment (Ellis, 2004: 38). It also aided the regulation and policing of coffee and coffeehouses. Frederick II of Prussia famously employed disabled war veterans as ‘coffee sniffers’ (kaffeeriecher or kaffeeschnüffler) to detect the unauthorised roasting of coffee beans (Vieser & Schautz, 2010), while in Stockholm, where (as part of a wider Swedish culture of sumptuary legislation) coffee was banned on five separate occasions between the 1750s and 1820s, the urban authorities often followed their noses to sniff out its illegal preparation, sale, and consumption (Knutsson & Hodacs, 2023).

Figure 2. Interior of a London coffee-house, drawing, c.1690–1700. 147mm x 220mm. London, British Museum, 1931,0613.2 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).


However, counterintuitively, coffeehouses wouldn’t always have smelt of coffee; as Phil Withington has recently and persuasively argued, London ‘was not immediately awash in coffee’, and coffeehouses and coffee were not necessarily synonymous, with the former housing ‘a diverse range of social practices and alimentary experiences rather than one narrowly defined by the taste for a single commodity and its attendant set of values’. These included traditional alcohols (ale, wine, spirits, and punch), a wide range of foodstuffs, and other exotic consumption options in the form of chocolate, sugar, tea, and tobacco (Withington, 2023).

Figure 3. Blowing a cloud at Offley’s, etching, c.1820. 105mm x 220mm. London, Museum of London, 44.7/17o.

Of these, tobacco was the most prominent (and pungent), and, as intimated by the image above, across Europe coffeehouses were primary settings for the smoking of pipes and later cigars by their predominantly male clientele (Tullett, 2019: chap 6). Thus, for a wide range of contemporary observers, the overriding olfactory characteristic of the coffeehouse was not the scent of coffee, but instead of tobacco smoke. One critic of the coffeehouse observed in 1661 that coffee was invariably ‘mixt with the more drying smoak of tobacco’, and that in consequence in coffeehouses ‘there is always a thick smoak, which will sully a fair colour’ (M. P., 1661: 3, 6); so dense was the smoke in London coffeehouses, according to one Swiss traveller in 1726, that it ‘would quickly destroy good furniture’ (Muyden, 1902: 164). Likewise, in his celebrated eighteenth-century periodical The London Spy, the writer and innkeeper Ned Ward described one medically themed coffeehouse as ‘stinking of tobacco, like a dutch-scoot, or a boatswains-cabbin’, a reference to the maritime origins of pipe-smoking (Muri & Neudorf, 2023: 11; Snelders, 2019). Elsewhere, he reported visiting another ‘odiferous’ establishment patronised exclusively by fashionable snuff enthusiasts, their ‘whole exercise being to charge and discharge their nostrils’, who were ‘always running their noses into the arse of a civet-cat’ (Muri & Neudorf, 2023: 194–6).

Coffeehouses right across the continent were apparently redolent of tobacco smoke. In 1726, the Irish historian and travel writer Thomas Nugent complained about the ‘constant smoking permitted’ in Hamburg’s otherwise-excellent coffeehouses, ‘in consequence of which a stranger not accustomed to this elegant practice, is in danger of being suffocated’ (Nugent, 1768: 73). Likewise, also referring to two venerable Hamburg coffeehouses (Dreyer’s and Tornquist’s), and using identical language of asphyxiation, in 1790 an anonymous writer from Lübeck observed that ‘[a] great discomfort in these coffee houses is the constant tobacco smoking. A foreigner who does not wish to partake in this cursed fashion is often in danger of suffocating’ (Anonymous, 1790: 144). On at least one occasion, an early modern coffeehouse, like present-day Amsterdam establishments, was filled with the singular bouquet of marijuana; in 1689, the London-based natural philosopher described sampling cannabis (which he described as ‘ganges’) at Jonathan’s coffeehouse on Exchange Alley, although it’s not clear whether he ate or smoked the drug.

Figure 4. George Cruikshank, Midnight: Tom and Jerry at a coffee shop near the Olympic, etching and aquatint, 1820. 246mm x 154mm. London, British Museum, 1978,U.984 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

As well as coffee and tobacco, the coffeehouse would have been composed of various other miscellaneous elements. Many of these are evoked in the print above, an 1820 illustration by George Cruikshank for Piece Egan’s picaresque bestseller Life in London, which depicts the two protagonists Tom and Jerry in a bustling Georgian coffeehouse in Covent Garden. The intimate press of bodies would have made an immediate olfactory impression; sometimes this would have been of powder and perfume (Kirchhoff, 1886), especially if there were dandies or fops present, but in this scene of ‘low life in the metropolis’ it would more likely have been the stale sweat and halitosis of the great unwashed (Egan, 1820: 219), especially as by the 1800s London’s coffeehouses were providing shelter and succour to ‘homeless wretches’ (Sala, 1859: 15) or itinerant ‘parlour people’ (Murray, 1844: 275).

Like the taverns, ordinaries, and cookshops that preceded them, coffeehouses were also centres of gastronomy and social dining, so we can stir the piquant odour of food and cooking into the mix; toasting crumpets in the image above, but also more elaborate fare such as turtle soup, bologna and darnes of salmon, and – in one Wapping coffeehouse in 1813 – a ‘warm edgebone of beef’ (Dunlap, 1813: 374). To this we can add the smell of wild and domesticated animals (cats, dogs, and caged birds range across the visual record), and – because, as we have seen, coffeehouses were sites for the consumption of and frequent overindulgence in traditional alcohols – the occasional stench of vomit. In 1662, the diarist and naval administrator Samuel Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century consumers of such images would have immediately grasped the olfactory significance of sick as it was often used as a symbol for the sense of smell in allegories and other visual discourses.

Feelings and Noses

I want to conclude this piece by, as recently and powerfully advocate by Will Tullett, following my own nose into my favourite local coffee shop: Marmaduke’s on Cambridge Street in Sheffield, one of many independent outlets that thrive in this vibrant northern city (Tullett, 2023). Situated in the Heart of the City II redevelopment, this was the second site opened by the Maramaduke’s team, and serves their characteristic range of speciality coffees and handmade baked goods in a conspicuously chic and airy space that – in their own words – is ‘industrious, casual, with a contemporary Danish twist’.

Figure 5. James Brown, The counter of Marmaduke’s coffeeshop on Cambridge Street in Sheffield, photo, January 2020.

Its decor in particular is nostalgic for me; it seems to have been lifted right out of the pages of The House Book, Terence Conran’s 1974 interior design bible, a copy of which my parents owned and with which I was strangely obsessed as a child. However, it turns out my experience of ‘Marms’ (as it’s affectionately known to devotees) is more sensorially diverse than I have hitherto grasped; I knew I adored its sights and sounds, but its olfactory landscape is also a key element of my enjoyment. Closing my eyes and tuning my nose, I inhaled the rich, caramelly, vaguely floral aroma of their guest espressos, hand brews, and batch filter, shot through with sweet and cinnamon undertones of sourdough, cakes, and pastries (even though the latter are baked at a different location). But this exercise in active sniffing revealed more, the deodorising effects of air conditioning notwithstanding: the citrussy aftershave of the young man at the neighbouring table; a waft of washing powder from the freshly laundered clothes of my server; a hint of incense-like polish from the parquet flooring; and the chemical tang of sanitising spray. As perhaps did the denizens of early modern coffeehouses, I experience all these as familiar and profoundly.

James Brown
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