July 25

The first issue of a periodical called Humors of a Coffee House appeared upon this date in London in 1707, published “for the benefit of a black coffee man called Bohee.”

The “coffee break” is thus of ancient lineage, as proved by this publication and others similar to it during the 18th century. Prior to the days of regularly published newspapers, the London—coffee houses were the—centers of informed opinions on the happenings of the times. All of them subscribed to the current newsletters, which they in turn made available to their patrons, and in addition they frequently housed very adequate libraries of books.

In 1728 the foremost coffee house engaged in a protracted quarrel with the proprietors of the newspapers concerning the pirating of news supplied by the coffee houses. There was even a threat on the part of the coffee men to publish their own newspapers. They stated that it was their responsibility to supply London with news “from the stores of intelligence” in their own hands.

They further accused the newspaper owners of employing men “to haunt coffee houses and thrust themselves into companies” where they were not known so that they could eavesdrop on the conversation. These persons, it was stated, loitered about “like house-breakers, waiting for an interview with some little clerk, or a conference with a door-keeper in order to come at a little news or an account of transactions; for which the fee is a shilling or a pint of wine!’

The scouts were also charged with “neglecting business all day by playing cribbage in an ale house, and having no news, had recourse to fiction, drawing up treaties, hanging for love, and drowning for despair, telling of deaths, robberies and revolutions, and turning the world upside down.” In all, a slate of crimes for which every succeeding generation of newsmen has been indicted.

Since advertisements were becoming commonplace in the newspapers, the coffee men took further umbrage against this source of profit to the papers. One of them disparaged this practice in print by stating, “Another complaint the coffee men have against the proprietors of the present newspapers is that they are made tools and properties of in the business of advertising. They stipulate for news, not advertisements. Yet the papers are ordinarily half-full of them. The Daily Post, for example, is often equipped with thirty, which yield three pounds fifteen shillings that day to the proprietors for the least. And sometimes that paper has more. Well, may they divide twelve hundred pounds a year and upwards! They are paid on both hands—paid by the advertisers for taking in Advertisements and paid by the coffee men for delivering them out; which (to make use of a homely comparison) is to have a good dinner every day and be paid for eating it. Here’s luck, my lads. Never was there so fortunate a business.”

The coffee house in later years took two directions. It either raised itself to the elegance of a club, or it deteriorated to what American newspapermen would call the gin-mill. Certainly it is to the tune of clinking ice that a great deal of contemporary news is gathered, with the coffee being ordered only when it’s time to meet the deadline.

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