The Origins of Coffee
Many people associate the coffee bean with South and Central America however; the coffee plant originated in Ethiopia, the Kingdom of Kaffa and became popular in the Middle East and Africa.
The use and enjoyment of coffee or “kahve” was widespread in the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, which endured from 1299 – 1923. “Kahve” is a Turkish word, which is translated from the Arabic “qahwa,” a shortened version of the phrase “qahhwat al-bun”—meaning “wine of the bean.” For over six centuries the Ottoman Empire encompassed three continents and was a central point for interactions and trade between the Eastern and Western cultures. Coffee houses and tea gardens were commonplace throughout the Ottoman Empire and eventually influenced the establishment of coffee houses throughout Europe and Great Britain.
Coffee Houses and Coffee Culture in Europe and Great Britain
The first coffee house to open in Great Britain was opened in Oxford in 1650. It was soon followed by the first coffee house in London, which was opened by a Turkish woman named Pasqua Rosee, who had previously been the servant of London merchant David Edwards. Edwards, being a trader in Turkish goods, imported the coffee and assisted Pasqua in setting up the coffee house. It was established on St. Michael’s Alley, in Cornhill. Undoubtedly armed with an entrepreneurial spirit, as well as a fair degree of business acumen, Pasqua took the London business community by storm, creating a new cultural trend. The popularity and resounding success of Pasqua Rosee’s first coffee house was so profound that it was emulated all over nearby London.
“Coffee houses” became the gathering place for scholarly minds, merchants, politicians and businessmen alike and played a vital role in the cultural and business development of London, England. The fee to enter the coffee house was usually one penny, which included a cup of coffee. Of course each additional cup would cost you. It was said of those coffee houses that you could gain quite an education by frequenting one; hence the term “penny university” was used interchangeably with “coffee house.”
Lloyds of London—The London Stock Exchange and the Coffee Connection
These early coffee houses were foundational in the business world of London and the place where deals were struck and alliances forged. For example, Edward Lloyd’s coffee house, established in 1688 on Tower Street in London, was frequented by marine underwriters and became the first home for what we know today as Lloyds of London. Some 300 years later the name and mission of Lloyds of London endures, however the catalyst role of coffee in the creation of this insurance icon is not widely known. By 1675 there were more than 3000 coffee houses operating in England alone. Imagine all the alliances forged as well as money and ideas that changed hands in these coffee houses and clubs.
Other London coffee houses where stock traders would gather formed the foundation for what would eventually become the London Stock Exchange. In 1698, stock dealers were expelled from the Royal Exchange due to “rowdiness” and began operating in the streets and coffee houses near the exchange. Jonathan’s Coffee House in Change Alley was the office for John Castaing, who issued a list of stock and commodity prices called “The Course of the Exchange and other things.” Beginning in a coffee house, over 300 years ago, the London Stock Exchange continues today as one of the world’s oldest and most vital stock exchanges.
Who would have ever thought that the first cup of coffee served in Oxford and later in London would result in the establishment of businesses and entities with worldwide reach, that still exists to this day!
Generally speaking, we tend to think of the beverages that have been favored by the British as fine ales and teas… Now that we know this intriguing “coffee” story, we can move on to the development of the amazing, multi-tasking coffee table, born of our love of coffee, stimulating conversation and mutual alliances!
Coffee Tables in the 18th Century?
High back wooden settees were commonly used in England until the early part of the 18th century. They were fairly uncomfortable and were gradually replaced by the much more attractive and comfortable low back, upholstered sofas around 1780. These sofas often utilized taller tables, which were placed behind the sofa for setting down, a cup of tea or coffee, candles for lighting or perhaps even a book. Side tables and tea tables were also utilized. It can be said that these various tables were all predecessors of our modern day coffee table.
The Victorians and Coffee
There are differing opinions and views on where the first “coffee tables” originated. The first time we hear the term “coffee table” applied to specifically designed tables is during the late Victorian period in England. These coffee tables were specifically designed to serve coffee and were generally about 27” tall. No doubt many interesting conversations took place around these tables, just as they have wherever coffee has been served ever since. Coffee tables produced in England during the late 19th century were based on earlier furniture styles, due in part to the popularity of revivalism in England and America. Due to the conflict between revivalism and modernism, “art nouveau” styled tables were also created featuring natural motifs and floral elements.
The Turkish, Japanese and Indian Connections
The idea for a lower table may have been inspired by the tables used in the tea gardens of the Ottoman Empire. It is interesting to surmise the intriguing “Turkish” connection to the evolution of the coffee table, since the first known coffee house in London was started by a Turkish woman named Pasqua Rosée.
Another possible scenario for the evolution of a low sofa height “coffee table” may also have been derived from the importance of Japanese furniture in the Anglo-Japanese style that was enormously popular in England throughout much of the 1870s and 1880s.
England’s Imperial dominion throughout various regions of the world, particularly in India, may also have facilitated the integration of the low table for serving coffee and entertaining guests. Although experts rarely agree on anything, it is safe to conclude that the origins of the coffee table can be traced back to numerous contributing factors and cultures.
Coffee Tables in the 20th Century
In 1920, J. Stuart Foote, president of the Imperial Furniture Company, proclaimed himself to be the inventor of the coffee table. His company massed produced “coffee tables” with shorter legs that made the tables more suitable for placement in front of the sofa for entertaining and for “setting down one’s coffee.” Prior to this, it was becoming an accepted practice in homes to shorten the legs of older or antique tables for use as a coffee table.
Coffee Tables and Prohibition
With Prohibition being the rule of law, Americans began to entertain around coffee, which must also have had something to do with the choice to market this newly mass produced item as a “coffee table.” It is equally interesting to note that with the repeal of Prohibition laws in the 1930s, the coffee table also became known as the cocktail table!
Due to the marriage of mass production and sheer marketing genius, the coffee table quickly became a fixture in American homes.
The Coffee Table Today
The coffee table has become one of the most functional and prominent pieces of furniture in our home décor. It has earned its place in the furniture hall of fame by its ability to fill so many roles in our homes and in our lives, simultaneously. As in the coffee houses of London over 300 years ago, we are still gathering around the coffee table. However, its role has evolved to accommodate our lifestyles and families. Coffee tables are really “everything tables.” Often, they double as additional seating, a place to put up our feet after a long day, a spot to display favorite books or art objects and yes, a place to put our coffee, tea, television / sound system remote or anything else we need to set down. Coffee tables are a fast and affordable way to update the entire look and feel of a room and are available at all price points.
Current Coffee Table Trends
- Classic and natural wood tables remain popular but have stiff competition with new and varied finishes and more opulent treatments.
- Old world finishes and soft gilded tones of gold, bronze and silver are being featured and add warmth to any grouping. They are at their best when used to enhance other furniture in the room.
- Mirrored furniture is currently very popular as it has a highly classic or architectural form that also utilizes mirrors to reflect surrounding colors and light. It reminds me of the Art Deco period. Mirrored furniture packs a double decorative punch. It has a classically luxurious, traditional and at the same time, modernist feel to it. It is particularly striking when it is utilized as a single striking accent.
- Ottomans are as popular as ever for use as makeshift coffee tables! Today there are so many options available locally, for well-appointed ottomans. A truly stunning decorative addition to any room would be to cover an ottoman with an oriental rug past its prime. Any other type of wool or cotton rug can be recycled into a stunning focal point in its own right. Of course ottomans can also be covered in leather, microfiber or any fabric of your choice which makes them a fantastic addition to your room.
- Custom tables made of reclaimed antique woods and recycled heart pine are gaining in popularity as we shift to a more organic and green mindset in our homes and lives.
- With the popularity of oriental motifs, bamboo, lattices and other oriental elements are also among popular choices for coffee tables.
- Glass top coffee tables are always popular. Due to their transparent nature they tend to suggest space and are often good choices if you have larger pieces of furniture in your room. Even when they are large themselves, they do not feel imposing.
- Putting a glass top over a favorite sculpture, figural item, chest or large piece of driftwood can also add a dramatic and interesting focal point and conversation piece to your room.
- A glass top table with a lower level is also lovely if you wish to display art, decorative antiques or favorite collectibles to be viewed through the glass top. This will add a dimensional feel and maximize the decorative impact of your coffee table and collectibles.
- Old iron gates that have found new use as decorative elements and metal tables with glass tops are particularly lovely and can be a good choice as opposed to wood, depending on the theme of your room.
- Painted furniture, particularly in cottage or coastal decors is as popular as ever and often makes a lovely and refreshing addition to your space, particularly seaside.
- Trunks and chests will always be in demand, due to their ability to double as storage.
- Placing identical or similar smaller tables side by side or in close proximity, in front of a sofa, can also work in smaller spaces as an alternative to a single coffee table.
Choosing your coffee table
The coffee table you choose is a matter of personal choice. Below are some helpful hints to remember when choosing the appropriate coffee table for your space. You will need to be certain that the coffee table does not compete with the other elements and furnishings in your space. A contrasting coffee table can add an unexpected surprise and unifying juxtaposition to differing styles. Eclectic interiors continually utilize this principal by melding different styles and decorative periods to create a harmonious personalized space.
Coffee Table Dos
- Do make sure that your coffee table is equal to the seat height of your sofa and surrounding seating.
- Do be sure to leave an aisle of about one foot or more, between your sofa and the coffee table.
- Do measure your room and the other furnishings to determine what size table you will need. Often the tables we see in furniture stores look much larger when we get them home.
- Do make sure to visit the coffee table resources in our area to see the latest trends, whimsical favorites and traditional mainstays available in the marketplace today. These stores and shops have in some cases traveled the world and the market shows to bring the very best to you, locally.
- Do consult an interior designer to assist you with your choice, if you are not certain what type of coffee table to purchase for your home. Many of the resources for coffee tables in our area have interior designers and decorators on staff and will happily provide assistance to you.
Who would have ever thought coffee and coffee tables would have such an interesting history and become such an important contributing factor in world history and in our very own homes! As in ages past, some of our best times have been spent having coffee and conversation with friends around a coffee table. May we never view coffee or coffee tables the same… Long live the coffee table!
Special thanks to everyone who provided wonderful information on current trends in the market place today.