My wallet won’t close because it is full of loyalty cards for coffee shops. When I’m arranging to meet a friend, want to read a book or a magazine, or just find myself at a loose end, I gravitate towards coffee shops. They are one of my favourite things. Fortunately I work in Sheffield, where in recent years there has been no shortage of coffee joints.

Another love of mine is the literature of the eighteenth century, and unlikely as it may sound at first, the two are far from unrelated. Time and again, over the past four years, I’ve been reading about the eighteenth-century coffee house whilst making full use of Sheffield’s booming industry of independent coffee shops. Since 2010, dozens of new establishments have appeared, all offering high-quality coffee in highly stylised environments. It’s in exactly such coffee shops that a boom in cheap print first made a monumental impact on eighteenth century society, irreversibly changing Britain, and the world, forever.

When I was offered the opportunity by Arts Enterprise at the University of Sheffield to develop a short film with local filmmaker Gemma Thorpe, it was this kinship between coffee houses then and now that I wanted to explore. What is the coffee shop, what has it always been and what has it always wanted to be?

Shot entirely on location at Couch on Campo lane, the film features footage of real coffee drinkers whiling away a Friday afternoon in the heart of Sheffield. The film’s soundtrack compiles contrasting descriptions of coffee houses, interspersed with the opinions of people we interviewed in coffee shops around the city.

The film gestures towards the surprising history of coffee houses and their representation in popular culture. It foregrounds two rival interpretations of what the coffee house is capable of, encouraging viewers to decide which reading they prefer.

On the one hand, there is the eighteenth-century vision of the coffee house as a centre for cultural exchange and learning. One commentator, writing in 1701, claimed that “coffee-houses have improved useful knowledge as much as the universities have”. Another paper, written by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, worked quickly to capitalise on this perception of the coffee house. Addison and Steele wrote The Spectator with the stated intention of filling these new coffee shops with knowledge, culture, reason, philosophy, ideas, opinion and, above all, learned conversation.

But for some eighteenth-century satirists and subsequent commentators the tendency of the coffee house to imagine itself as more than the acceptable face of daytime drinking was hilariously undermined by the fact that they were commercial enterprises. In Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, the poet encourages readers to ask whether the coffee house was really the home of learned discussion, or just an impression of it. Later, Virginia Woolf offered a more generous critique of the eighteenth-century coffee house, deducing that the “whole thing is a mirage”.

Even as a mirage, the coffee house proved popular and lucrative. Though eighteenth-century London might not have invented the coffee house, it certainly learnt how to market it. And what these coffee shops also did, and what they are doing now here in Sheffield, is provide a space for communities. The coffee house is somewhere for people to be with other people, and that alone is worth celebrating.

Watch ‘The Coffee House’

Adam Smith