Reading in Progress: The World of Caffeine by Weinberg and Bealer - Coffee Snark!

The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World's Most Popular Drug - Bennett Alan Weinberg, Bonnie K. Bealer

I am always on the lookout for historic snark. Mainly because every now and then someone will write something passionate online, full of despair over people who aren't being polite and how this is ruining our society - something like that. After all, society has survived snark in the past, and the squabbling and the drama. It makes me smile when people think there was a golden era of politeness, when people weren't...well, people. So I enjoy reading about the snark of ages past and wondering how people find this so easy to forget.

 

For instance! In the 1700s in London they didn't have blogs, but there was the same desire to write about someone or something that was annoying. What did the literate folk do? They wrote snarky broadsides or pamphlets - which could contain essays, poems, tavern songs,etc. (Also see street literature.) These were printed out and distributed. Not for money - this was not about profit (gentlemen don't dirty their hands with that) - only to get it and the (hopefully) witty writing talked about. The subject of your annoyance could get in a huff and write a response and then distribute broadsides of his own. You could go after anyone in writing - but of course, there was always the possibility you'd get called out for a duel or even jail if you were spouting anything hinting treason. But a lot of the snark was of a personal, gossipy nature for the usual human reasons.

 

Sometimes a snark war would break out in a newspaper's/periodical's letters section. With one person starting it, then the target defending himself (or a good friend stepping in as author) in a response letter, and so on. Afterwards, if the topic was really juicy or you just didn't want anyone to forget the subject of the snark or perhaps how great you were in your snarky writing, you could print up the whole series of letters as a book - which again, you'd not sell, but hand around to friends. Who might eventually see to it that the subject of the snark would get a copy too. Thus perhaps re-starting the snark war. (Randomly I have no idea if snark war is a real phrase I've previously read or not.)

 

This snark writing was usually done by someone with money, because otherwise you'd want to sell your writing. Lots of class issues in there of course, with the assumption that selling your work meant you weren't a worthy author or scholar. (Again, the whole "gentleman and truly educated people don't work" thing.) If you couldn't write in a witty manner? You could have a friend write for you - and sometimes they'd go ahead and do this without asking you. Surprise! Everyone's talking about you because I just wrote an amusing defense for something you'd not heard you'd been snarked over!

 

Now I'm not saying all this is particularly good - I am saying this is pretty much what goes on here and there online now. Not a vast amount has changed this way - except perhaps the extremes. (Though remember, duels. Death threats and writing were always there - go read up on Mark Twain's newspaper editing days.) Even if the writing didn't use your name there were loads of clues in the text so that everyone knew who the author was snarking on. (It helped that this mostly went on in a fairly small group of aristocrats and politicians, and their friends.)

 

So with that in mind - I'm actually bringing the topic around to this book! So when the coffeehouse became wildly popular in the UK of the late 1660s and 1700s, not everyone was a fan. Men gathered in coffeehouses for hours, reading newspapers and discussing politics, literature, etc. Tavern keepers didn't like the competition and those in power didn't like the idea of people criticizing politics.

 

I wonder if the original broadside in this quote was actually written by a woman or a man wanting to spread anti-coffeehouse sentiment.

 

p 157:

"In 1674, perhaps after spending too many lonely nights at home while their husbands regaled at the coffeehouses, which, according to the custom of the English, were forbidden to women, the wives of London...published The Women's Petition against Coffee, representing to public consideration the grand inconveniences accruing to their sex from the excessive use of the drying and enfeebling Liquor, a broadside which asserted that coffee made men

 

"as unfruitful as the deserts where that unhappy berry is said to be bought; that since its coming the offspring of our mighty forefathers are on the way to disappear as if they were monkeys and swine."

 

In  another passage they describe the plight of what we might call the "coffeehouse widow": "on a domestic message [errand] a husband would stop by the way to drink a couple of cups of coffee" and be gone for hours."

 

The response to that broadside was this one:

The Men's Answer to The Women's Petition against Coffee, vindicating...their liquor, from the undeserved aspersion lately cast upon them, in their scandalous pamphlet

Another broadside from the same year - just as another example of the (looong) titles these could have:

A Brief Description of the Excellent Vertues of that Sober and Wholesome Drink Called Coffee, and the Incomparable Effects in Preventing and Curing Most Diseases Incident to Humane Bodies

Ah 17th century spelling, whee. Also another thing that's old - exaggerated health claims in marketing!

 

I have not bothered to run any of those down online, having read a bit of such material and found that it's really not something I want to read the whole of. I prefer it when it's put into context in a history book, the inside jokes explained, and a nice long quote of the snark itself is cited. I've read some of this stuff on its own and a lot of it is tedious - let's just say that then, as now, people tended to go on and on, perfectly assured they were being terribly witty and funny when the joke was old pages ago.

 

Er, not like I know anything at all about what it's like to post lengthy bits of dubiously amusing writing that could use editing. Ahem. *cough*

 

I do have a book review to finish that has some good examples of a personal snark war in the 1700s. Will work on that later! (I know, I always say that.)