Coffee: nemesis of tea, friend to chicory, moral downfall of sheep and lifeblood of archaeologists

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.

Everyday is a job for coffee.

Everyday is a job for coffee in this office. Image: Imgarcade

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).

Coffee jacket and advertisement for the Victoria Coffee House in Lyttelton. Image

Coffee jacket and advertisement for the Victoria Coffee House in Lyttelton. Image: New Zealand Herald 13/06/1903: 6 and Lyttelton Times 8/07/1857: 8.

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).

A selection of historical articles on coffee. Images:

A selection of historical articles on coffee. Images: Auckland Star 28/06/1916: 8Bruce Herald 8/11/1889: 5, 1/08/1899: 2Star 1/04/1905: 3, Taranaki Herald 29/05/1891: 4

Coffee, the moral downfall of Abyssinian sheep. Image:

Coffee, the moral downfall of Abyssinian sheep. Image: Evening Post 23/06/1923: 23.

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).

Article on 'coffee drunkenness' from 1896. Image:

Article on ‘coffee drunkenness’ from 1896. Image: 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).

A ceramic coffee can found in Christchurch. Image: J. Garland.

A ceramic coffee can found in Christchurch. Image: J. Garland.

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).

Symington's coffee & chicory bottle found in Christchurch. Image: J. Garland.

Symington’ & Co’s coffee & chicory bottle found in Christchurch. Image: J. Garland.

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.

Workers on Mr W. Roberts' chicory farm, Spreydon, 1905. Image: Christchurch City Libraries

Workers on Mr W. Roberts’ chicory farm, Spreydon, 1905. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference: PhotoCD 10, IMG0037 

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.

Jessie Garland


Ashburton Guardian. [online] Available at

Auckland Star. [online] Available at

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

Christchurch City Libraries, 2014. Chicory: an early Christchurch industry. [online] Available at

Evening Post. [online] Available at

Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at

Mataura Ensign. [online] Available at

New Zealand Herald. [online] Available at

Observer. [online] Available at

Star. [online] Available at

If the boot fits, wear it

My passion is anything and everything to do with archaeology. So when I was given the opportunity to be an intern at Underground Overground Archaeology Ltd., I jumped at this chance of a lifetime! My name is Jessica Hofacher and I am a year 13 student at Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery Secondary School. Next year I will be pursuing my passions by studying archaeology at the University of Otago. This year I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Gateway (work experience) program and be taken on by this remarkable company!


An interesting perspective on archaeology. Image: Myer 2012.

Over the last 10 months I have been researching and compiling an information database for the types of shoes available in Christchurch in the 1800s. I did this by searching through old newspapers (available on Papers Past) for information on the styles of shoes available, the people selling them, the methods of manufacture used to make them and the amount of money they cost.


Lace-up lady’s ankle boots, with a military stacked heel and machine stitching along the vamp, tip and back quarter of the upper, c.1900-1920. Photo: J. Garland.

I was asked to research using this method so I could get an understanding of the advantages of this process and also how time-consuming it can be. It was very effective at producing an enormous amount of data, but it also means that it takes a very long time to process and sort through all the information! And I mean a veeeeery long time! To research what shoes were available in Christchurch in the 1850s to the end of the 1870s, who sold them and for how much and what methods of manufacture were used, I had to sort through hundreds of advertisements from the Lyttelton Times, Press, Timaru Herald, Star and the Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsular Advertiser, which took me eight months of Wednesdays!

This topic is very important to archaeologists in Christchurch because not much information is known about shoes in this context.

Footwear remains a neglected artefact despite its common occurrence on … historical sites… when considering artefacts in historical archaeology we think immediately of tea cups, medicine bottles and clay pipes. It is important however to consider artefacts other than those that appear in abundance such as ceramic and glass… one category which has received scant consideration by archaeologists is leather footwear… footwear is only occasionally referred to in site reports and typically only in a brief and non-analytical manner.” (Veres 2005:89)

My research is important to the team working here because when a shoe is found in a Christchurch site, they can look at my information database and deduce “Okay, this style of shoe was not available in Christchurch before this date so this shoe (and assemblage) must date to a point after this date” or “This style of shoe was sold in Christchurch for this amount of money in 1864 which shows the inhabitants of this site could have been fairly well off.”

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Image: Lyttelton Times 13/8/1853: 11.

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Lyttelton Times 13/08/1853: 11

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Image: Lyttelton Times 17/1/1852: 2.

An interesting trend I found in the data was how many shoe businesses were in Lyttelton in the 1850s. In the years 1852, 1853, 1854 and 1856, there were seven shoe businesses in Lyttelton! Three, possibly four were on London Street, two were on Canterbury Street and the other one was on Oxford Street. This means that within five years of European settlement, Lyttelton had seven potential places you could go to purchase shoes. This is a lot considering most shopping precincts these days (excluding malls) have only one -maybe two – shops that sell shoes.

It makes me ask the question, ‘how many people were living in Lyttelton and the surrounding area at that time, that it warranted having so many businesses to manufacture shoes?’ Lyttelton was the main port for import and export in Christchurch so in one way the abundance of businesses makes sense. But if you consider that nearly all of these businesses were manufacturing their own shoes, then the port doesn’t really play much of a role in supplying them with imported stock. These little insights into the urban layout of Canterbury regions are very special because it allows us to imagine what it was like to be a part of the community at that time. It also allows us to speculate on the type of people who owned these businesses and why, and the kinds of people who were buying from them (based on what types of shoes were being sold).

One such business was ‘West End House’ on London Street, Lyttelton, owned by Thomas and Robert Shalders. This is completely my speculation and personal opinion (based on what I’ve read so far) but I’m sure if more research was done much information such as this could be found out. Thomas and Robert Shalders were brothers who in 1853 opened a business where they could sell their wares, called West End House (Lyttelton Times 13/8/1853:11). This business may have been the beginning of their adult life as shoe manufacturers, which I’m sure they hoped would turn into a successful career, perhaps one that would support their wives and young families. They were not restricted to making and selling shoes for only one demographic, so patrons of all ages could satisfy their soles’ with strong and stolid shoes.

My time spent at UOA has been immensely enjoyable and very informative. I’ve found things out about what it’s like to have a career as an archaeologist that I could not have discovered any other way. The team here has given me insights and advice about studying at Otago, what courses will be useful for me and about how to get where I want to be in my future career. Not only have I found things out about what it’s like to be an archaeologist, I have been able to experience what it’s like working as one! My research project has given me an insight into information about Christchurch’s past that I never would have thought to look at on my own. Completing my research was like being transported back in time 164 years and personally speaking with the residents of Christchurch. It was the experience of a lifetime.

Jessica Hofacher


Lyttelton Times. [online] Available at:

Myer.G-C, 2012. The Lascaux Review. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 November 2014].

Veres, M., 2005. Introduction to the analysis of archaeological footwear. Australasian Historical Archaeology 23: 89-96.