It must be said that, here at Underground Overground Archaeology, we have something of a coffee problem. With a (very) few exceptions we’re an office of hardened coffee drinkers, ranging from one-cup-a-day habits to the occasional and somewhat obscene four-or-five-cups-a-day problem. We frequent our local coffee shop (the fantastic Vivace on Tuam Street) so much that the staff sort of just laugh kindly at us when we come in and order more coffee (and muffins!) than one office should reasonably be expected to consume. On the rare and terrible mornings when someone discovers that the coffee is, in fact, all gone, the discovery is met with a chorus of despair and rapid scramble to “get coffee, get coffee, get coffee”, lest we release the ravening caffeine deprived beast lurking within us all.
It’s a problem. Not an uncommon one in modern society, though, is it? A caffeine addiction seems almost par for the course in today’s bustling workplaces and busy lives. Coffee drinking is everywhere and with it comes the rise of coffee cultures, from the social and economic ubiquity of Starbucks to the hordes of hipsters congregating in fair trade organic coffee houses.
It’s not, however, an exclusively modern phenomenon, as many might assume. We tend, I think, to imagine tea as the hot beverage of choice in Victorian society and it was, just not exclusively so. Coffee, and the ritual of coffee drinking, was also a well-established part of 19th century life. Coffee houses (or ‘palaces’) were not uncommon establishments in major cities: in Christchurch over the years the city saw the Victoria Coffee House and Reading Room in Lyttelton, the Avon Bank Coffee House, the Old Post Office Coffee House and Uncle Tom’s Coffee House on High Street, among others. There were even coffee carts! Interestingly, as an aside, most of these houses appear to have offered food and sometimes lodging as well, with a notable number also involved in the temperance movement of the late 19th century (Lyttelton Times 19/12/1860: 6, 14/12/1861: 1, 21/12/1861: 1).
Along with the coffee houses, numerous articles can be found in contemporary newspapers on the subject of coffee drinking in 19th century society. Some discuss the proper preparations for a cup of coffee, the best culinary accompaniments and how to distinguish the good coffee from the bad. Others mention the names of famous people who swore by the drink, from Voltaire to Frederick the Great, in addition to numerous accounts of the benefits and the dangers of coffee consumption. In fact, in some sources, discussions and accounts of coffee and those who drank it are all but indistinguishable from similar discussions in the modern media (including an article on guarana as a rival to coffee, for all you V & Red Bull drinkers out there).
On the other hand, the article suggesting that the ingestion of coffee plants led to the moral downfall of previously sober and well-conducted Abyssian sheep is perhaps more obviously a product of its time (I could not make that up, I swear). The same goes for the article discussing coffee as a substitute afternoon drink for the “once common absinthe”, or the one comparing the “muddy and yellowish” skin of coffee drinkers to the “withered, dried up and old look” given to tea drinkers. Another description of coffee drinkers employed the terminology of ‘coffee drunkeness’ and ended with a statement many modern coffee dependents may identify with: “the victims suffered so seriously they dared not abandon the drinking of coffee for fear of death” (Mataura Ensign 8/10/1896: 4).
In all seriousness, though, it’s clear from historical sources that coffee drinking was a common habit in 19th century Christchurch, and one not so far removed from modern culture as we might think. It’s interesting, then, to see how it is represented in the archaeological record (and to think about how it might be represented today). As with so many other consumables, coffee is only visible indirectly through the various objects used to store, prepare and drink it in the past, and the places (specifically, coffee houses) at which it was consumed. We haven’t yet excavated the site of any coffee houses in the city, so in Christchurch, our evidence seems to come down to two types of objects: coffee cups, or ‘cans’ as they are known, and coffee and chicory bottles.
Coffee cans are mug-like ceramic drinking vessels, with straight sides and lower, flatter bases than teacups, made from porcelain or earthenware. They’re predominantly associated with coffee drinking from the late 18th century onwards (Brooks 2005): advertisements from the Victorian era make special reference to coffee cups as an item distinct from tea cups and saucers (Lyttelton Times 14/11/1857: 7, Observer 22/08/1885: 4). Here in Christchurch, we find them in a variety of sizes, although they have a tendency to be larger than tea wares. They’re often decorated with transfer prints, sponged decoration or gilt banding, although they’re less likely to be found as part of an identically patterned set than teacups (this may be in part because coffee cans don’t seem to have had accompanying saucers).
When viewed from a broad perspective, coffee cans indicate a very clear delineation between the rituals of tea drinking and the ritual of coffee drinking. They suggest (through the quantities found on sites) that, however popular it was, coffee drinking remained less common than tea drinking in the 19th century. They may, eventually, be able to provide us with some indication of the types of people drinking coffee: whether they were predominantly male or female, if age or national origin was a factor or if class and social status played a part. As individual objects, however, coffee cans don’t actually tell us a whole lot, other than indicating the probable presence of a coffee drinker in a household. They certainly don’t tell us much about the ways in coffee was prepared or drunk (i.e. at breakfast, in social gatherings), or the types of coffee consumed by people in 19th century Christchurch.
In fact, there’s little in the way of archaeological information on the types of coffee available to the 19th century consumer, although there’s a surfeit of brands and types listed and advertised in the historical record. Historical examples include beans and grounds, sold by brands like Crease’s A1 Coffee, Webster’s Coffee, Dragon Coffee or Brown, Barrett & Co’s Excelsior Coffee. By contrast, the only archaeological evidence for the coffee itself comes from the coffee and chicory bottles occasionally found in Christchurch (and elsewhere).
Coffee and chicory was an essence, sold as thick syrup and used as a form of instant coffee during the 19th and early 20th centuries (Christchurch City Libraries 2014). The chicory, a plant root, was used to augment the bitter ‘coffee’ taste of the syrup, and the concoction appears to have been relatively popular in its time. Chicory was not always easy to come by in New Zealand: most of it was actually grown here in Canterbury and supplied to the rest of the country (Thames Star 25/01/1893: 4). Interestingly, most of the coffee and chicory bottles we find on Christchurch sites were produced by Symington & Co, an Edinburgh based company, rather than local chicory farmers such as Mr. W. Roberts, who owned the Canterbury Chicory Works in Lincoln, or Edwin Trent, based in Templeton (of Trent Brothers fame). As it turns out, people in other parts of the country turned to other ingredients when they couldn’t get their hands on chicory, local or international: unfortunately, in one case, the substitute used turned out to be turnip (Thames Star 25/01/1893: 4). Coffee and turnip? Mmm, no thanks.
All things considered, it seems that despite the use of such unconventional flavour supplements (and the apparent Victorian concern with the moral welfare of sheep), it’s not difficult to find parallels between the culture of coffee drinking in 19th century Christchurch and that of the present day. In fact, there’s far more of them than I was expecting when I first started looking into this. Coffee houses are a common and integral part of our everyday lives here and now and we regularly see headlines and articles debating the health benefits of coffee, the best techniques for its preparation and the characteristics of a good flat white or cappuccino. We still have specific cups from which to sip our delicious caffeinated beverages and, while chicory is no longer a common addition, some of us still take great delight in adding various flavoured syrups to our coffee. And, no doubt, much of the information available on the subject in the modern media will be as entertaining to future archaeologists and historians as the Victorian newspapers have been for me.
Ashburton Guardian. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Auckland Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Brooks, A., 2005. An Archaeological Guide to British Ceramics in Australia: 1788-1901. The Australasian Society for Historical Archaeology, Sydney.
Bruce Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Christchurch City Libraries, 2014. Chicory: an early Christchurch industry. [online] Available at www.christchurchcitylibraries.com
Evening Post. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Mataura Ensign. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Observer. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz