Character of a Coffee-House (1673)

Midnight Modern Conversation (1733), by William Hogarth


"The Room stinks of Tobacco worse than Hell of Brimstone, and is as full of smoak as their Heads that frequent it, whose humours are as various as those of Bedlam, and their discourse oft-times as Heathenish and dull as their Liquor..."

With Allowance, April 11th. 1673.

A Coffee-House is a Lay-Conventicle, Good-fellowship turn'd Puritan, Ill-husbandry in Masquerade, whither people come, after Toping all day, to purchase, at the expence of their last peny, the repute of sober Companions; a Rota-Room that (like Noahs Ark) receives Animals of every sort, from the precise diminutive Band, to the Hectoring Cravat and Cuffs in Folio; a Nursery for training up the smaller Fry of Virtuosi in confident Tattling, or a Cabal of Kittling Criticks that have only learn't to Spit and Mew; a Mint of Intelligence, that to make each man his peny-worth, draws out into petty parcels, what the Merchant receives in Builion: He that comes often saves two pence a week in Gazets, and has his News and his Coffee for the same charge, as at a three peny Ordinary they give in Broth to your Chop of Mutton; 'tis an Exchange where Haberdashers of Political small wares meet, and mutually abuse each other, and the Publique, with bottomless stories, and headless notions; the Rendezvous of idle Pamphlets, and persons more idly imployd to read them; a High Court of Justice, where every little Fellow in a Chamlet-Cloak takes upon him to transpose Affairs both in Church and State, to shew reasons against Acts of Parliament, and condemn the Decrees of General Councels; 'Tis impossible to describe it better than the most ingenious of the Latine Poets has done it to our hand, and that so excellently, we cannot but transcribe it:

"Unde quod est usquam quamvis Regionibus absit
"Inspicitur, penetrátque cavas vox omius ad Aures
"Nocte Diéque patet, Tota est ex AEresonanti
"Tota Fremit, Vocésque refert, Iteratque quod Audit,
"Nulla Quies intus, nullâque silentia parte
"Nec tamen est Clamor, sed parvae Murmura Vocis
"Qualia de Pelagi (si quis procul audiat) undâ
"Esse solent, qualemve sonum cum Jupiter atras
"Increpuit nubes, Extrema Tonitrua reddunt;
"Atria Turba tenet, veniunt Leve vulgus, Eun•que
"Mistáque cum veris passim Commenta vagantur,
"Millia Rumorum, confusáque verba volutant;
"Equibus Hii vacuas Implent sermonibus Aures
"Hi narrata feruntaliò, Mensuráque ficti
"Crescit, & Auditis aliquid novus Adjicit Author
"Illic Credulitas, Illic temerarius Error [page 2]
"Varáque Letitia est, Consternatique Timores
"Seditióque recens, dubióque Authore Susurri
"Ipsa quid in Caelo Rerum, Pelagóque geratur
"Et Tellure videt, Totúmque Inquirit in Orbem.

Thus strictly English't.

Here all that's d•ne, though far remote, appears,
And in close whispers penetrates our ears;
As built of Brass, the House throughout resounds,
Reports things hea•d, and every word rebounds.
No rest within, nor sil••c•, yet the noise
Not loud, but like a hallow murmuring voice;
Such as from far by Rowling Waves is sent,
Or like Joves fainting Thunder almost spent:
Hither the idle vulgar come and go,
Carrying a thousand Rumours to and fro;
With stale reports some listening ears do fill,
Some coyn fresh tales, in words that vary still;
Lies mixt with Truth, all in the telling grows,
And each Relator adds to what he knows:
Here dwells rash error, light credulity,
Sad panick fears, joys built on vanity;
New rais'd sedition, secret whisperings,
Of unknown Authors, and of doubtful things:
All Acts of Heav'n and Earth it boldly views,
And through the spacious World enquires for News.

The Room stinks of Tobacco worse than Hell of Brimstone, and is as full of smoak as their Heads that frequent it, whose humours are as various as those of Bedlam, and their discourse oft-times as Heathenish and dull as their Liquor; that Liquor, which by its looks and taste, you may reasonably guess to be Pluto's Diet-drink; that Witches tipple out of dead mens Skulls, when they ratifie to Belzebub their Sacramental Vows.

This Stygian-Puddle-seller, was formerly notorious for his ill-favour'd Cap, that Ap'd a Turbant, and in Conjunction with his Antichristian face, made him appear perfect Turk: But of late his Wife being grown acquainted with Callants, and the provocative virtue of Chocolet, he finds a Broad-brim'd Hat more necessary: When he comes to fill you a Dish, you may take him for Guy Faux with a dark Lanthorn in's hand, for no sooner can you taste it, but it scalds your throat, as if you had swallowed the Gunpowder-Treason: though he seem never so demure, you cannot properly call him Pharisee, for he never washes either out or inside of his pots or dishes, till they be as black as an Usurers Conscience; and then only scraping off the contracted Soot, makes use of it, in the way of his Trade, instead of Coffee-powder; their taste and virtue being so near of Kin, he dares defie the veriest Coffee-Critick to distinguish them: Though he be no great Traveller, yet he is in continual motion, but 'tis only from the fire side to the Table, and his tongue goes infinitely faster than his feet, his grand study being readily to eccho an answer to that thredbare question, What News have you Master? Then with a grave whisper (yet such as all the Room may hear it) he discovers some mysterious Intrigue of State told [page 3] him last night by one that is Barber to the Taylor of a mighty great Courtiers man, relating this with no less formality than a young Preacher delivers his first Sermon, a sudden Hickup surprizes him, and he is forced twenty times to break the thred of his Tale with such necessary Parenthesis's, Wife, sweep up those loose Corns of Tobacco, and see the Liquor boil not over: He holds it as part of his Creed, that the Great Turk is a very good Christian, and of the Reformed Church, because he drinks Coffee, and swears that Pointings for celebrating its virtues in doggerel deserves to be Poet Laureat: yet is it not only this hot Hell-broth that he sells, for never was Mountebank surnisht with more variety of poysonous drugs, then he of liquors, Tea and Aromatique for the sweettooth'd Gentleman, Betony and Rosade for the addle-headed Customer, Back recruiting Chocolet for the Consumptive Gallant, Herefordshire Redstreak made of rotten apples at the three Cranes, true Brunswick-Mum brew'd at S. Katherines, and Ale in peny Mugs, not so big as a Taylors Thimble.

As you have a hodge-podge of Drinks, such too is your Company, for each man seems a Leveller, and ranks and files himself as he lists, without regard to degrees or order; so that oft you may see a silly Fop, and a worshipful Justice, a griping Rock, and a grave Citizen, a worthy Lawyer, and an errant Pickpocket, a Reverend Nonconsormist, and a Canting Mountebank; all blended together, to compose an Oglio of Impertinence.

If any Pragmatick, to shew himself witty or eloquent, begin to talk high, presently the further Tables are abandon'd, and all the rest flock round (like smaller birds to admire the gravity of Madge-Howlet) They listen to him a while with their mouths, and let their Pipes go out, and Coffee grow cold, for pure zeal of attention, but o'th' sudden fall all a yelping at once with more noise, but not half so much harmony as a Pack of Beagles on the full Cry, to still this bawling, Upstarts

Captain All-man-sir, the man of mouth, with a face as blustring as that of Eolus and his four Sons in Painting, and a voice louder than the speaking Trumpet, he begins you the story of a Sea-fight; and though he never were further by water than the Bear-garden, or Cuckolds-Haven, yet having pyrated the names of Ships and Captains, he perswades you himself was present, and performed Miracles; that he waded Knee-deep in blood on the upper Deck, and never thought serenade to his Mistress, so pleasant as the Bullets whistling; how he stopt a Vice-Admiral of the Enemies under full sail, till she was boarded, with his single arm instead of Grapling Irons, [*] and puft out with his breath a Fire-ship that fell foul on them. All this he relates sitting in a Cloud of Smoak, and belching so many common Oaths to vouch it, you can scarce guess whether the real Engagement, or his Romancing account of it, be the more dreadful: However, he concludes with railing at the Conduct of some Eminent Officers, (that perhaps he never saw) and protests, had they taken his advice at the Councel of War, not a Sail had escap'd us.

He is no sooner out of breath, but another begins a Lecture on the Gazet, where finding several Prizes taken, he gravely observes, if this Trade hold, we shall quickly rout the Dutch Horse and Foot by Sea: He nick-names the Polish Gentlemen where ever he meets them, and enquires, whether Gayland and Taffaletta be Lutherans or Calvinists: Stilo Novo he interprets a vast new [page 4] stile or Turn-pike erected by his Electoral Highness on the borders of Westphalia to keep Mounsieur Turenes Cavalray from falling on his retreating Troops; He takes words by the sound without examining their sense: Morea he believes to be the Country of the Moors, and Hungary a place where famine alwayes keeps her Court, nor is there any thing more certain, than that he made a whole Roomful of Fops, as wise as himself, spend above two hours in searching the Map for Aristocracy and Democracy, not doubting but to have found them there, as well as Dalmatia and Croatia.

Next Seigniour Poll takes up the Cudgels, that speaks nothing but Designs, Projects, Intrigues, and Experiments, One of those in the old Comedian, Plautus, Sciunt id quod in Aurem Rex Reginae dixerit, Quod Juno confabulata est cum Jove, Sciunt quae neque futura neque facta sunt, tamen illi sciunt, &c. All the Councels of the German Dyet, the Romish Conclave, and Turkish Divan, are as well known to him as his Landresses Smock. He kens all the Cabals of the Court to a hairs breadth, and (more then an hundred of us do,) which Lady is not painted; you would take his mouth for a Limbeck, it distills his words so niggardly, as if he was loath to enrich you with lies, of which he has yet more plenty than Fox, Stowe, and Hollingshead bound up together; He tels you of a Plot to let the Lyons loose in the Tower, and then blow it up with white-powder; of five hundred and fifty Jesuits all mounted on Dromedaries seen by Moonshine on Hampsteadheath, and a terrible design hatch'd by the Colledge of Doway, to drain the narrow Seas and bring Popery over dry shod; besides he has a thousand inventions dancing in his brain-pain; an Advice-boat on the Stocks, that shall go to the East-Indies, and come back again in a Fortnight, a trick to march underwater, and bore holes through the Dutch-ships Keele with Augurs, and sincke them, as they ride at Anhor, and a most excellent pursuit to catch Sunbeams, for making the Ladies new fashioned Towrs, that Poets may no more be damn'd for telling lies about their Curls and Tresses.

But these are puny Pugs, the Arch-Devil, wherewith this Smoke-hole is haunted, is the Town-wit, one that playes Rex where ever he comes, and makes as much hurry as Robin Goodfellow of old amongst our Granams Milk-bouls; He is a kind of a Squib on a Rope; a meteor compos'd of Self-conceit and noise, that by blazeing and crackling engages the wonder of the ignorant, till on a sudden he vanishes and leaves a stench, if not infection behind him; he is too often the stain of a good Family, and by his debaucht life blots the noble Coat of his Ancestors, A wilde unback'd Colt, whose brains are not half codled, indebted for his cloaths to his Tailor, and for his wit (such as it is) to his Company: The School had no sooner 'dued him with a few superficial besprinklings, but his Mothers indulgence posted him to Town for Genteeler breeding, where three or four wilde Companions, half a dozen bottles of Burgundy, two leaves of Leviathan, a brisk encounter with his Landlords Glasswindowes, the charms of a little Miss, and the sight of a new Play dub'd him at once both a Wit and a Hero, ever since he values himself mainly for understanding the Town, and indeed knows most things in it, that are not worth knowing: The two Poles whereon all his discourses turn are Atheism and Bawdry; Bar him from being prophane or obscene, and you cramp his Ingenuity, which forthwith Flags and becomes useless, as a meet Common Lawyer when he has cross'd the Channel.

He is so refractory to Divinity that Morality it self cannot hold him, he affirms [Page 5] humane Nature knows no such things as principles of Good and evil, and will swear all women are whores, though his Mother and Sister both stand by: Whatever is sacred or serious he seeks to render Ridiculous, and thinks Government and Religion fit objects for his idle and fantastick Buffoonry, his humor is proud and assuming, as if he would palliate his ignorance by Scoffing at what he understands not, and therefore with a pert and pragmatique scorn depreciates all things of nobler moment, but most passionately affects pretty a lamode words, And is as covetous of a New Song or Ayre, as an Antiquary of Cato's Statue with ne'r an arm, and but half a nose, These keep him alwaies imployd, and fill up the Grotesco's of his conversation, whilst with a stately Gallantry once in every half hour he Combes out his Wig, Carreens his breeches, and new marshalls his Garniture, to the Tune of Methinks the poor Town has been troubled too long.

His mind used to whistle up and down in the levities of Fancy, and effeminated by the childish Toyings of a rampant imagination finds it self indispoled for all solid imployment, especially the serious exercises of Piety and Virtue, which begets an aversion to those Lovely Beauties, and that prompts him on all occasions to expose them as ridiculous and vain: Hence by degrees he comes to abuse Sacred Scripture, makes a mock of eternal Flames, Joque on the venerable Mysteries of Religion, and in fine, scoffe at that All Glorious and Tremendous Mayesty before whom his brother Wits below tremble; Tis true he will not confess himself Atheist, yet in his heart the Fool hath said it, and boasts aloud that he holds his G•spel from the Apostle of Malmsbury, though it is more than probable he ne'r read, at least understood ten leaves of that unlucky Author; Talk of Witches and you Tickle him, speak of Spirits and he tels you he knowes none better than those of Wine, name but Immaterial Essence, and he shall flout at you as a dull Fop incapable of sense, and unfit for Conversation; Nor is he ever better pleas'd than when he can here hedge in some young raw Divine to Bulbait with scurrility and all kind of profanchess.

By means of some small scraps of learning matcht with a far greater stock of Confidence, a voluble Tongue, and bold delivery, he has the ill-luck to be celebrated by the vulgar; for a man of Parts, which opinion gains credit to his Insolences, and sets him on further extravigances to maintain his Title of a Wit by continuing his practice of Fooling, whereas all his mighty parts are sum'd up in this Inventory.

Imprimis, A pedling way of Fancy, a Lucky hit at Quibbling, now and then an odd metaphor, a conceited Irony, a ridiculous Simile, a wilde fetch, an unexpected Inference, a Minick Gesture, a pleasing knack in humouring a Tale, and lastly an irresistable Resolution to speak last, and never be dasht out of Countenance:

By these Arts dexterously manag'd he engrosses a vaste Repute, The grave Citizen calls him shrewd man, and notable He adpiece, The Ladies (we mean the things so called of his acquaintance) vote him a most accomplisht Gentleman, and the Blades swear he is a Walking Comedy, the only Merry Andrew of the Age, that scatters Wit wherever he comes, as Beggars do Lice, or Muskcats perfumes, and that nothing in Nature and all that can compare with him.

You would think he had got the Lullian Art, for he speaks Extempore on all subjects, and ventures his words without, the Relief of Sense to second them, his thoughts start from his imagination, and he never troubles himself to Examine their decency, or solidity by Judgement. To discourse him seriously [page 6] is to read the Ethicks to a Monkey, or make an Oration to Cal•gula's Horse, whence you can only expect a weehee or Jadish spurn; after the most convi•cing Arguments, if he can but muster up one plausible ••que you are routed, For he that understood not your Logick, apprehends his dro••, and though Syllogysmes may be answered, yet Jests and loud laughter can never be confuted, but have more sway to degrade things with the ••thi•ki•g crou•, than demonstrations; There being a Root of envy in too many Men, that invites them to applaud that which Exposes and villifies what they cannot comprehend; He pretends grea• skill in curing the Tetters and Ring-worms of State, but blowes in the sores till they Rankle with his poisonous breath, he shoots libels with his forked tongue at his Superiors and abusest his dearest Friends, chusing to forfeit his neck to the Gibbet, or his shoulders to the Batoon rather than lose the driest of his idle Quibbles; In brief he is the Jack-pudding of Society, a fleering Buffoon, a better kind of Ape in the judgement of all Wisemen, but an incomparable Wit in his own.

Thus have we led you from Board to Board, like the fellow in the Tower, to shew you st•ange Beasts wherewith this place is sometimes frequented. To take now a farewel view of the House will be difficult, since tis always shifting Scenes and like O Brazile (the Inchanted Island) seldome appears twice in a posture; The wax c••dles burning, and low devout whispers sometimes strike a kind of Religious Awe, whilst the modish Gallant swears so oft by Iesu, an Ignorant Catholick would take it for a Chappel, and think he were saying our Ladies Psalter; In some places the Organs speak it a Musick Room, at others a pair of Tables and draught b•ard, a smal gaming house; on a sudden it turns Exchange, or a Warehouse for all sorts of Commodities, where fools are drawn in by inch of Candle, as we betray and carch Larks with a Glass; The Bully-Rock makes it his Bubbling pond, where he angles for Fops, singles out his man, insinuates an acquaintaince, offers the wine, and at next Tavern sets upon him with, high Fullums, and plucks him: The Ingeniosi use it for an after Rehearsal, where they bring Plays to Repetition, sift each Scene examine every uncorrected Line, and damn beyond the fury of the Rota, whilst the incognito Poet out of an overweening affection to his Infant Wit, steals in muffled up in his Cloake, and sliely Evesdrops like a mendicant Mother to praise the Prettyness of the Babe she has newly pawm'd on the Parish.

But 'tis time to be gone, who knows what Magick may be a working, For, behold! the Coffee-Powder settles at the bottome of our dish in form of a most terrible Saracens Head. For a parting blow then give us leave to unbend a little, and say,

A Coffee-House is a Phanatique Theatre, a Hot-House to flux in for a clapt understanding, a Sympathetical Cure for the Gonorrhea of the Tongue, or a refin'd Baudy-H•use, where Illegitimate Reports are got in close Adultery between Lying lips and Itching Ears.

Si quid nouisti rectius Candidus Imperti



Taken from The Character of a Coffee-House, with the Symptomes of a Town-Wit. London: Printed for Jonathan Edwin, at the three Roses in Lud-Gate-Street, 1673. Full text online by EEBO-TCP.