In this unpublished chapter from Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants, Wu explains how the coffeehouse came to be not just a social hub, but the center of news distribution and in a way, the forerunner to the modern media industry.
In 1654, on Queen’s Lane in Oxford, a Jewish immigrant from Syria named Cirques Jobson opened a new kind of business. It was, at the time, just the second in Oxford and among the very first in Europe outside of Turkey. On the outside, it looked just like a normal house, because it was, in fact, Jobson’s house. But in a large room on the first floor, Jobson had opened a space that was among the very first to fuse English and Ottoman traditions in a manner that would come to transform civilization as we know it.
Jobson’s house had tables and chairs for patrons, and between the tables and the kitchen, young boys bringing patrons a new and exotic drink, then called kahveh or caffe. (The boys, for an additional fee, also shined shoes.) As a contemporary described the beverage: “It is a Turkish kind of drink made of water and some berry or Turkish beane… It is somewhat hot and unpleasant but a good after relish and caused breaking of wind in abundance.”
But there was more than just coffee in Jobson’s house. On a large, communal table Jobson provided his patrons with sheets of paper, irregularly printed, known as “News Papers.” These papers, precious, expensive, and difficult to get elsewhere, were a key lure used to draw in his customers. As coffee house historian Brian Cowan writes, “the early coffee houses […] bundled news and coffee together as a means of attracting their customers.” Entry was typically one pence; coffee, two pence per cup. Another coffee house, in London, employed a parrot who squawked, “Where’s the news?”
In that coffee house, more than 350 years ago, we witness one of the first incarnations of a scene you’d immediately recognize today: People sitting and reading the newspaper over a cup of coffee. That simple ritual may seem a humble thing, but as professor John Sommerville opines…