As I said before, the coffeehouse, established for the drinking of one beverage, was soon invaded by the other. Thomas Garway’s was among the first ten or twelve in London. When very young, Pope was taken to meet the aged Poet Laureate John Dryden at Will’s in Bow Street, where Dryden held court for years, his armchair in its “settled and prescriptive place” by the hearth in winter and out on a balcony in summer. Pepys, too, loved the coffeehouse atmosphere where, as he put it, a man “could toss his mind.” It was the one place where a bishop and highwayman–both sure to be well-mannered–might enjoy one another’s company unmolested. The democratic character of these establishments worried some members of the government enough that in 1675, they persuaded Charles II to suppress them as centers of sedition. A remarkable thing happened. Men of all parties set up such an outcry at being denied their favorite haunts that the king canceled his proclamation only eleven days after issuing it. By the time of Queen Anne, there were some five hundred of these “nurseries of idleness” in London.
It is not too much to claim that the coffeehouses produced and polished the wit of the eighteenth century, that without them Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, or Gulliver’s Travels would make much poorer reading. This is why they were called “penny universities,” a reference both to the conversation they bred and the penny admittance fee. A cup of tea or coffee cost twopence, usually, and chocolate a halfpenny more. A pipe of tobacco cost a penny, and newspapers were free. According to Richard Steele, all a man who wished to join a group of talkers did was to light his pipe from the candle on the table before them; this served as adequate introduction.