What: A coffee house token
Where: British Museum
When: Around 1672
Currency is always a representation of greater concepts at work. But it’s unusual that the forces symbolized are the end society-wide alcoholism and birth of enlightenment as with today’s On Loan piece: a small copper token housed at the British Museum in London Perhaps, one of the smallest representations, at 2.2 grams, of Western society’s largest advancement.
Ancient British coffee houses of the time were littered with newspapers and frequented by middle-class intellectuals who would endlessly discuss ideas over a strange Turkish brew: coffee. The first of these was opened by a Polish diplomat after Turkey’s failed siege of the city, during which bags of Turkish beans were left behind. Here, in the coffee houses, men stimulated in mind and body, it is said, proceeded to launch the Enlightenment and, in this case, customized currency. Thanks to a rise in counterfeiting and a collapse in confidence at the height of the British Civil war, small change had been banned outright. This forced business dealing in smaller wares to issue creative solutions, or coffee house tokens, in order to sell their goods.
Before the advent of the ancient coffee houses, people in the Western world were drunk the majority of the day and night due to filthy living conditions. Water, for example, was typically unfit for consumption, so fermentation (i.e beer) was the most popular way of quenching one’s thirst. From the moment people woke up, they began and ended their days by downing “beer soup,” as Malcolm Gladwell dubbed it in “Java Man” his survey of coffee house culture. As we all know far too well, it’s quite hard to think straight after a couple of drinks, let alone try and envision a more functioning society. With the majority of British society either hungover or thirsty, innovation wasn’t coming anytime soon. Which is why the breakthroughs of both coffee and coffee house coin, as the journalist Steven Johnson sums it up in his book, The Invention of Air, were a dawning of a new day. “Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries.”