Coffee Houses in America: A Brief Analysis

Coffee Houses in America: A Brief Analysis

As I am sitting here, in a phenomenal coffee shop in Charlottesville, Virginia, (thank you Mudhouse Coffee Roasters for inspiring this blog!) I can’t help but think about the history of coffee shops. Where did they come from? Why are they the way they are? So I went on a deep dive to find out. 

As it turns out, coffee shops have an incredibly long history around the world. Even in the United States, coffee shops predate the founding of this nation and have served as social gathering grounds for centuries. They serve as music venues, meeting spaces, work desks, first-date ideas, and casual hangouts and often went by the name of coffee houses in the past. But let’s start at the beginning. 

coffee house interior

What is the oldest coffee house in the world?

The oldest coffee house in the world dates back to 1555 in Constantinople. After spreading from Ethiopia through the Middle East and the Levant, coffeehouses formed in England in 1652 and later in France. 

Coffee houses sprouted up in the middle east to serve practicing muslims who could not consume alcohol but enjoyed the social outlet that bars and taverns provided. Coffee houses, therefore never served alcohol, something that is still quite common today. 

Dover Cliffs

Through colonization, the English (particularly John Smith- yes, that one) discovered coffee and, in the early 1600s, quickly brought it back to England. The English loved their coffee and even more so the community that formed around it and so,coffeehouses appeared for the first time in mid-17th century England. Tea did not appear in English culture until almost a decade later, at which point coffee houses were well established and counted over 3,000. 

In fact, it was the same coffeehouses that first offered tea and popularized it amongst the English. The French, too, fell in love with coffee houses and so they started popping up all over Paris. Naturally, with the settlement of the Americas and the founding of the first colonies, particularly the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the coffee bloom spread to America.

sailing vessel

What was the first Coffee Shop in America?

The first official American coffeehouse was established in October 1676 in Boston, MA by John Sparry. However, Dorothy Jones predates Sparry as the first licensed coffee trader to sell coffee out of her tavern in 1670. American coffeehouses quickly became gathering places for meetings and even hosted the planning of the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

Boston was the first “city” to be born out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1630-1691) by the Puritans of England. Ten years after the founding of the colony, in 1640, the dutch first imported coffee into their colonies, such as New Neatherland, which encompasses modern-day New York City and parts of surrounding states including Connecticut, New Jersey, and Long Island. The New Amsterdam settlement grew quickly, similar to the Boston settlement and the two engaged in trade. 

nantucket lighthouse

 Fast forward to 1670, when Dorothy Jones, a Welsh emigrant, became the first person to be licensed as a coffee trader in the new colonies. She sold coffee and chocolates out of her tavern, along with wine and other beverages, and while her license does not specifically state the term “Coffee house”, one might argue that 

“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.”

is enough of a statement. Meanwhile, John Sparry is claimed as the official first founder of a coffeehouse-in-title after receiving permission for it in 1676. As I sit here, I can imagine Mrs. Jones to be quite the lady. One of great hospitality but not above single-handedly kicking some overly caffeinated or simply over-served patron out to the streets. I picture her a little like Mammy Two Shoes, the owner of Tom from the Tom and Jerry cartoon. To me, it seems that Dorothy Jones should be getting a lot more credit for her role than John Sparry, of whom little is known. 

Green Dragon Tavern in Boston Massachusetts
Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

In addition to the socializing that occurred in coffee houses in the 17th and 18th century in the new colonies, political discouse also became increasingly prevalent. In fact, the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston is the home of the American Revolution, with the Boston Tea Party of 1773 being planned here. The tavern still exists today and serves a full menu but no longer functions as a coffee house. 

What is the oldest, still-remaining coffee shop in America?

Caffe Reggio is the oldest coffee shop still operating in the United States. It was founded in 1927 in the Greenwich Village of Manhattan in New York City.

Caffe Reggio in New York City
Michael Bednarek, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

It is extremely difficult to determine the oldest, still-functioning coffee house in America, largely due to inconsistencies in their definition. For all intents and purposes, Caffe Reggio is the best option here. The coffee shop that’s merely a block around the corner from Washington Square Park has hosted many cultural moments ranging from appearances in hit movies such as The Godfather II to serving as the backdrop of one of John F. Kennedy’s speeches in 1959.

Caffe Reggio is also the first coffee shop in the U.S. to serve cappuccino, with the original founder of Caffe Reggio, Domenico Parisi, being credited with introducing the beverage to the American market. The espresso machine used today is the original machine built in 1902 that made the Caffe popular in the first place. 

old espresso machine
Beentree, Espresso machine- Coffee Urn (Electra)

Even today, Caffe Reggio is still one of the most popular coffee shops in America and extremely worth the visit if you find yourself in New York City, especially if you geek out on art, history, and good coffee. The original espresso machine was originally coal-powered before being converted to gas. It is still on display today and is quite a stunner. 

I hope that you found this article just as interesting to read as it was for me to research it. And who knows, maybe you’ll nail some coffee-shop history questions at the next trivia night! If you have anything to add, please let me know below. Cheers!

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2 comments

Enjoyed reading the post. Why is Cafe du Monde (New Orleans 1862) not the oldest coffee shop still operating in the US?

Scott Waldrop

Thanks Justin for sharing your coffee shop history. Going to meet up for coffee with my nephew from New York.
I will enlighten him on his Manhattan coffee shops. Also thank you for helping the many coffee farmers and growers out there.

Candace Adeimy

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About the Author

Justin Kramp is a coffee fantatic and the owner and founder of Final Grind Coffee Co. He loves drinking single-origin specialty-grade coffee from around the world while researching interesting topics in the coffee world to share with his readers like you.

He founded Final Grind Coffee Co. in college in a quest for better coffee in a more convenient way.

To learn more about Justin and Final Grind Coffee Co., click here!