Coffee has never been just a beverage. Since the first coffeehouses were established in Mecca, that magical elixir made from the ground beans of the Coffea plant has led to conversation, recreation and all forms of socializing.
Thanks to caffeine, coffee has always provided a jolt of energy—adding to productivity. But perhaps the most stimulating property of coffee has been the simple act of coming together as a community.
The Coffeehouse: A Brief History
Since the 15th century, the traditional coffeehouse has been a center of social interaction—a place where men would assemble to converse, entertain themselves with music, reading, playing chess and, of course—to drink coffee. The coffeehouses of the Arabian Peninsula, known as Kaveh Kanes, began in the 1400s as religious gatherings, but quickly transformed into social meeting places for gossip, singing and storytelling. The beverage spread rapidly across the subcontinent; Constantinople’s famous 1500s coffee shop, Kiva Han, was a regular rendezvous for those who wanted to engage in radical political thought and dissent. By the 1600s, cafés were the center of social life in Europe— a safe, friendly place where like-minded people could gather and talk.
In the 20th Century, Hemingway and Picasso made Les Deux Magots famous as not just a café, but as a way of life populated by the intellectual and literary elite. Today, the coffee shop is unrivaled in its universal status as a symbol of human discourse and conversation.
Women’s Societies in The 1900s
Coffee was, and still is, an important rallying point behind many social gatherings exclusively for women. “Café Society” was an acceptable and popular way for ladies to meet and share news and gossip. In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, the protagonist’s aunt hosts a meeting of the Ladies’ Missionary Circle at her home, featuring coffee and treats, as an act of hospitality and community for the neighborhood. Similar coffee-fueled meetings were the norm throughout the lives of American women at the time of the First and Second World Wars.
“We could go for a coffee?” “I met her at coffee.” “Coffee’s downstairs at nine.” The word has long surpassed a simple definition as liquid, expanding to include business meetings, romantic dates and times of day—it is as much an idea as it is a beverage. “Coffee break,” “coffee hour” and “coffee time” may literally feature coffee, the drink—but they don’t have to. It is the universal excuse for a time to start work, stop work, meet someone, get away from people, interview for a job, gauge one’s interest in another person, chat with friends, or just taste a great cup of coffee.
Not Just For Laughs
While the image of a coffee break is stereotypically convivial, it also represents an important chance to bond and share concerns. In a study by the psychology journal Symbolic Interaction, researchers observed groups of Danish employees at a company that had recently undergone a large-scale merger. Workers would gather in the morning to vent their frustrations and bond over shared negative experience, which had a “depressurizing” coping effect. When the company eliminated the 15-minute break, workers began gathering spontaneously. Noticing this, the company wisely allowed the impromptu meetings to continue. Dr. Pernille Stroebaek from the University of Copenhagen remarked that “coffee breaks have important social, and potentially monetary, value for organizations…[they] should be treated as communal practices that allow communities of coping to develop.”