Latest Research 19th Century Masterfile

A Saloon without the Liquor: Coffee Houses in the 19th Century

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”- T.S. Eliot

The delicious, rich taste of coffee. Today, coffee houses are commonly employed for various purposes: a meeting place, study session, or a chance to escape the realities and duties from everyday life with a delicious fresh brewed cup and a good book.

In the 19th century, however, coffee houses in the United States and England served a mission to abolish the popularity of saloons and compete against the vice of alcohol. That was, at least, their intended mission. Saloons were seen to corrupt the even the finest of men. Among the attractions contained within the bar dwellings, people perceived the saloon as a house of evil temptations: temptation which could spread like a virus.

The Mission

The new coffee house was created as a space for any class of workingman to remove himself from the fortress of a saloon, and discover satisfaction in an environment without alcohol. A place where one can read a newspaper or book, play billiards, and enjoy a fresh meal.

While their emergence is often associated with the women in the Temperance Movement, the father of the crusade was Mr. H.A. Short, of Bristol, England. His success, and the later efforts primarily from women in England and Scotland, proved the coffee house’s value. Reformation of the Pubic House Movement revolutionized coffee houses from a brawling “tavern” to a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere. This environment of peace and enjoyment is still the overall mission today.

The architecture and design were planned. The idea was to  create a peaceful dwelling, with delicious hot food and drinks,  games, large furniture, and entertainment. Houses such as People’s Café Company, and the London Coffee Tavern Company kept those designs without charitable assistance. However, while temperance saloons became a success in England, the process in America was not as smooth.

Journey to America

Major American cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, made various attempts to establish a successful temperance saloon. And while many did not succeed, in the United States, the Temperance Movement took England’s concept of the coffee house and altered its mission to that of a charitable cause.

In Chicago, 1895, Hull House Hull House Coffee Roomopened a coffee house for both the working man and woman. The most popular and crowded cities worked to establish coffee houses. However, with lack of funds and pizazz, the buildings did not make a lasting impression.

At this time, saloons greatly outnumbered churches and schools, and the more impoverished areas had the highest concentrations of saloons. Various temperance groups saw the need for change, but often the coffee houses were not ideally located. The lack of business aptitude, funds, and poor locations of the coffee houses, failed to produce a product that enticed people away from liquor found little to no success.

Often, the atmosphere did not establish sanction, but rather ruckus. One of the goals was to create an intellectual atmosphere and promote lectures. However, they often lead to arguments and brawls.

Not until the establishment of Thompson’s Spa in Boston, Massachusetts, was there a successful business venture to fulfill the mission to compete against the saloon. Prior to this, many coffee houses failed due to the absence of business acumen and location. Thompson’s founder, Charles Eaton, enacted on figuring out the needs of the customers and developed from those standards.

Between choice locations, quality of food, customer service, and overall appeal of the establishment, Eaton proved that coffee houses could rival the saloon in the United States.


  • Howerth, I.W. "The Coffee-House as a Rival to the Saloon," The American Magazine of Civics  v.6 (1985): 590-601.
  • Graham, Robert. "The Coffee House as a Counteraction of the Liquor Saloon," The Charities Review v.1 (1891-189): 215-218.

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