Coffee ad from the 1650s

This handbill -- which can be seen in the British Museum -- dates back to the 1650s, and was produced by the first coffee shop in London, in St. Michael's Alley, Cornhill.

It is a simple innocent thing, composed into a drink, by being dryed in an Oven, and ground to Powder, and boiled up with Spring water, and about half a pint of it to be drunk, fasting an hour before and not Eating an hour after, and to be taken as hot as possibly can be endured; the which will never fetch the skin off the mouth, or raise any Blisters, by reason of that Heat.

The Turks drink at meals and other times, is usually Water, and their Dyet consists much of Fruit, the Crudities whereof are very much corrected by this Drink.

The quality of this Drink is cold and Dry; and though it be a Dryer, yet it neither heats, nor inflames more than hot Posset.

It forcloseth the Orifice of the Stomack, and fortifies the heat with- [missing text] its very good to help digestion, and therefore of great use to be [missing text] bout 3 or 4 a Clock afternoon, as well as in the morning.

The Vertue of the COFFEE Drink.


    1. Nah, the remarkable thing is that this text is perfectly intelligible even today. There are plenty of languages where orthography, grammar and/or vocabulary have changed to an extent that makes even 100-year-old texts all but indecipherable to the average person.

      1. لسان عثمانى‎ is all I can think of and Vietnamese and Korean in Chinese characters (which I can’t find).

        1. Well, yeah, Turkish would be one as you say, what with the alphabet change and a major shift in preferred/acceptable loanwords. Then there’s a couple of Central Asian languages where pretty much the same thing happened; also, major orthographic reforms in some Slavic languages. Another good example is Japanese: major, major shift in vocabulary, multiple attempts at revising the orthography AND character simplification.

          If you go back 300-400 years (to the time of the ad in question), you’ll find that some of the big (Western) European languages can be a challenge whereas any competent English speaker can read the above just fine.

          1. Irish Gaelic, too.

            I just wasn’t sure of the degree of unintelligibility of a language like Japanese, for instance, when the number of kanji used in different types of publication can vary widely even now, and for which standardization seems an impossible task.

            Plenty seemed a slight exaggeration.

      2.  I recall reading somewhere that if you learned classical greek you could understand a modern greek newspaper because the language as written has changed so little. The spoken form has changed considerably apparently, presumably in terms of both pronunciation and slang that wouldn’t be used in a published article. Of course I know nothing of greek so it would be interesting to hear this confirmed or disproven by someone who does :)

        1. Not quite true any more. Originally there were two forms of modern Greek- demotic, which is what people actually speak, and katharevousa, which was a “purified” form of the language that had more of the foreign words removed and was much closer to Ancient Greek, perhaps to the point of being mutually intelligible. Katharevousa was the official language of the new Greek state, the language of education and the law, and some newspapers were written in it, but almost no-one spoke it.

          It is true that even in katharevousa the pronunciation had changed dramatically from Ancient Greek, so while a speaker of Ancient Greek could read katharevousa they might not be able to understand it spoken.

          Since the 1970s demotic has been the official language (as close to Ancient Greek as Italian is to Latin)- katharevousa only survives on shop signs.

          1. Katharevousa is perfectly intelligible if you speak or read demotic greek. Afaik there’s no trend for shops signs in katharevousa and it’s mostly used by church officials who are always looking for more formal, stilted ways of speach.

            The main problem as you mention is the simplification of the pronounciation over the course of the last 20+ centuries. The various educated guesses that exist re ancient pronounciation sound nothing like demotic or katharevousa .

            For example, someone who learned ancient greek in the UK will read οι πολλοί as “hoi poll’oi” (as it’s written), while native speakers will simplify that to “y poll’y”. 

          2. Replying to emiliaStrong- signs like Αρτοποιειον (“bakery”) are in katharevousa.

            (It literally means “place where bread is made”, but using the ancient/katharevousa word for bread. If you wanted to talk about a bakery, you wouldn’t use that word, you’d call it a φουρνος- literally “oven”).

            I agree that katharevousa is intelligible to demotic-speakers- so is koine! In fact, there were riots when the first (demotic) Greek translation of the New Testament was published- previously Greeks had read the NT in the original.

          3. The pronunciation of modern Greek changed perhaps less than that of some ancient forms of Greek, which had their traditional Byzantine pronunciations hijacked by  Erasmus and various later academics with questionable reconstructions. Homeric and the Attic Greek of Plato were rather different than the Greek of today, and sometimes closer to Erasmus’s pronunciation, but the koine of the Bible was probably pronounced much more similarly to today’s demotic. The truth is there isn’t much evidence for the old pronunciations aside from some transliterations to other languages and poetic structural evidence.

    2. Doesn’t seem much different from the English that we learned in New England in the 1960s.  Of course, I have to keep explaining to Californians what an apothecary is.

      1. apothecary. apothecary…
        Wasn’t that the producer of the play, who was given a small role in Romeo and Juliette, in the movie “Shakespeare in Love”?

      2. Fun etymology fact of the day: “apothecary” and “bodega” are cognates. “Potheca” and “bodega” are the same root with different voicing on the consonants.

      3. Chaucer in the 1390s: 
        . . . since you shouldn’t tarry,

        And in this town there’s no apothecary,

        I will myself go find some herbs for you

        That will be good for health and pecker too.

      4. Speaking of New England, my mayflower grandmother always said “Apothecary, pothecary,  othecary, hecary, ecary, cary, ary, ry, y”AND 
        “Pharmacy, harmacy, armacy, rmacy, macy, acy, cy, y, “

    3. Huh? Hardly any changes. The style’s a little more flowery and they still use the long s, but that’s about it.

      1. I loved reading Civil War correspondence between Lincoln, Grant, and Sherman, but gosh darn did those guys use a comma whenever they felt like it.

  1. Interesting to see the remark about Turks not being troubled by scurvy, and the separate observation that their “Dyet consists much of fruit”.   C’mon guys, put 2 and 2 together!

    Actually this connection had already been made a few times, but the correct theory was hard to establish because of things like fruit juice supplements quickly oxidising, destroying the vitamin C and proving useless.  Even into the 20th century (Scott’s Antarctic expeditions) the understanding was still lacking – bacterial toxins in meat were the leading theory in Britain at that time.

    1. But the leaflet points out that their diet isn’t a problem, as the coffee helps to take away the harmful effects that could be caused by eating so much fruit.

    2. One of my favorite stories: The Lost Cure for Scurvy
      “…So when the Admiralty began to replace lemon juice with an ineffective substitute in 1860, it took a long time for anyone to notice. In that year, naval authorities switched procurement from Mediterranean lemons to West Indian limes. The motives for this were mainly colonial – it was better to buy from British plantations than to continue importing lemons from Europe. Confusion in naming didn’t help matters. Both “lemon” and “lime” were in use as a collective term for citrus, and though European lemons and sour limes are quite different fruits, their Latin names (citrus medica, var. limonica and citrus medica, var. acida) suggested that they were as closely related as green and red apples. Moreover, as there was a widespread belief that the antiscorbutic properties of lemons were due to their acidity, it made sense that the more acidic Caribbean limes would be even better at fighting the disease.

      1.  All of the orange trees on Gilligan’s Island died.  The specter of scurvy had Winston Howell, III offering several million dollars for the last one and everybody got hysteric in fifteen minutes over something that would not become an issue for at least three years.  And then at the end of the show, here comes Gilligan, nonchalantly walking around eating a grapefruit from the orchards on the opposite end of the island.  The moral?  Figure it out.

    3.  Another few claims that have gone on to be proven are the one about it being good for headaches (certain kinds of headaches anyways) and “coughs of the chest” (or certain kinds of chest coughs anyways).

      For centuries after, coffee was the only treatment for asthma, and it still remains a useful “field first aid” treatment for an asthma attack if your patient doesn’t have their medication and needs to be held together while the medication is fetched or an ambulance arrives.

      I found out about the last point when I tried to cut down on my coffee intake and “got sick”, went to the doctor, and got lectured about hiding my asthma for so long. So hurrah for an 8+ cup a day habit, and stress-drinking coffee!

      1. Coffee in me tends to bring on headaches. If I really have to wake up, I’ll drink coffee and pop two ibuprofens (wherein said pills do not also contain caffeine). Otherwise, I don’t indulge, which is a shame as I like coffee.

        I found that when I drank coffee regularly, I’d have more headaches than usual, so I stopped and the problem went away. Same thing with sodas sweetened with aspartame: they caused headaches and lung irritation until I figured it out and stopped — although the coughs may have also been due to the phosphoric acid usually present in sodas.

        Who knows whether it’s genetics, some insidious component in the coffees that I would drink, or some interaction with the other drugs I take. But I’m no dumb-dumb, I stop doing stuff that causes problems, once I find a causal link.

        1. “The Keeler Migraine Method” is an extremely excellent book about headaches. Indeed, it reads as if the author took a standard MD text like “Wolff’s Headache” and translated it to English. My friend the neurologist sent me a copy in honor of the fact that I’ve just started having (mild, short duration, rare) exercise headaches (which are, surprise, a kind of migraine).

          As the author says, it turns out that almost all headaches are migraines, until proven otherwise (the term, medically, refers to the way that the headache proceeds to happen). 

          Indeed, he does mention that a surprisingly large number of people are, in fact, given migraines by aspartame. (But: almost anything can be a trigger, especially when heaped upon other triggers, like too much sun, too much loud noise, too much fragrance, and dehydration.) And, as you found out, avoidance is the #1 “cure.”

          So yes, you have migraines. And congrats on “curing” them.

  2. Does anyone know how copyright law applies to old documents like this?  I know from family history research I’ve done at the National Archives that I’m not permitted to publish images of 400 year old documents that I’ve photographed (although transcriptions are ok), which seems a bit odd.  Hopefully the poster of this coffee ad got permission (they don’t mention having it), and it doesn’t get taken down!

    1.  You can publish what you like from the (British) National Archives, usually for a fee. They ask 40 quid for publishing up to 20 documents, proceeds going to help their custodial work (apparently). If the site is pw-protected or educational it’s usually free, and if it’s commercial there may be other fees.

    2. you are confusing copyright with Crown copyright:

      Obviously the above document has no copyright (the image of it may have!)

    1. Prithee, get thee hence to an apothecary (for Californians: ), Crest WhiteStrips have newly landed from the exotic New World factorees.

      1. The Neweth Delights from the Colonies are a marvel, but I entreat you! The Soda of Baking, a modest gift of Nature, can be used on a teeth brufh to great effect in the work of keeping one’s mouth from the marks of sinful drinks.

  3. Interesting the way they talk of things having heat in similar ways to traditional chinese medicine.. Good thing we let go of that…

  4. In the final paragraph the second [missing text] I bet was something about “it gets your juices flowing.” Or “This stuff motifateth ye.” Because then it gives a time for use: morning and 3 or 4 in the afternoon, when (roughly) 9-5ers NEED speed. Excuse me: coffee. A wonderful antioxidant. I drink it myself. The heat cools my liver, while its coolant effects chill my innards and stimulates some I dunno meridian that needs ample wattage. 

    It be sayeth that in Hollande theye drinke it wyth the flowerres of the cannabis for goode health.4 out of 5 Mad Doctors approved of these messages

    1. My guesses as to the missing text (with orthography regularized):

      It forcloseth the Orifice of the Stomack, and fortifies the heat with-[in, and] it’s very good to help digestion, and therefore of great use to be [drunk a]bout 3 or 4 a Clock afternoon, as well as in the morning.

      [Coffee e]ven quickens the Spirits, and makes the Heart Lightsome.

      [It] is good against sore Eyes…

      In any case, for damn sure that sentence referred to the best part of waking up! And probably a Lightsome Heart is what they called that pounding sensation from too much of it :D One does have to wonder, though, if the “foreclosing of the Orifice of the Stomack” referred to coffee’s ability to suppress the appetite.

      1. The correct replacements are:
        It [so] closeth the Orifice of the Stomack, and fortifies the heat with-[in][that] it’s very good to help digestion, and therefore of great use to be [had a]bout 3 or 4 a Clock afternoon, as well as in the morning.
        [It much] quickens the Spirits, and makes the Heart Lightsome.
        [It] is good against sore Eyes…

        1. Awesome find! To elaborate, this is a publication written in 1842, stating that the “Vertues of Coffee” was found in the British Museum “without any date”, and has a complete transcript.

          For fun, here’s another transcript from Oct 15, 1792, 50 years earlier, wherein the submitter is treated to tea and coffee at a “worthy family’s” house, and is shown the ad, and it is again printed in its entirety:

          And Sir Francis Bacon in the Sylva Sylvarum of 1627, explains that “The Turks use a kind of Berry called Coffee; which they roast, powder, and make into an Infusion with hot Water. The drinking of this, they affirm, adds Strength and Vigour both to the Mind and Body; tho when taken immoderately it disorders the Senses: whence it appears to be kind of Opiate.”

          1. So what you’re saying is that Sir Francis Bacon not only wrote Shakespeare, he wrote this coffee ad too?


            I wonder how many years after 1792 (I like your hot sleuthing, Robert!), did someone try to the coffee enema?

            “When thee Stomack remaynes obstinate drynke ye an infusion of coffee for it mooves the foeces; for more rapiditie make direktly into thine own colon.” 

            Oh, but it was probably the Germans who did the enema thing first, if I know my German kulture…

  5. I’m curious about the language around coffee being a “dry” and “drying” drink. What was the heath theory around drying/moistening beverages?

    “It is neither laxative….” I’m gonna have to disagree with you there, Sammy.

    1. It’s the last gasp of medieval medicine (itself derived from ancient Greek medicine) which considered health to be made from four humours – each of which had an associated bodily fluid. There were four of them to match the four ancient ‘elements’ of earth, air, water and fire. The fluids were black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. As just one example, black bile was responsible for melancholic feelings and was produced in the spleen – it was said to have a quality of being cold and dry and was associated with the earth.
      When the four humours were out of balance the body sickened accordingly. So an excess of black bile would make a person melancholy. The ‘cure’ would be to give the patient a drug that was thought to have the opposite qualities – in this case warm and wet.

      Coffee being a drying drink could be used to treat an excess of phlegm – which manifested itself as lethargy.

      1. As a diuretic, coffee certainly is a “drying” drink. But I suspect your explanation is more correct.
        Edit: Oh @#*&(, Antinous, it sure is a diuretic! I’ll look this up later because you’re wrong.
        Edit: and everything’s wrong. According to a cursory google in German, it’s all wrong. The caffeine in coffee is a diuretic “unless you drink coffee every day.” These conclusions are complicated by the fact that Germans think the caffeine in tea is a different compound than the caffeine in coffee.

        1. Theobromine is a homologue of caffeine and occurs in tea leaf. It is a different compound. Theophylline is another homologue, and is also in tea leaf.

          Along with the caffeine. Tea is just fancy that way.

    2.  They contradict themselves on the lack of laxitive properties anyways, saying above that it helps the Turks with the negative side effects of eating too much fruit :D

    3. I’m curious about the language around coffee being a “dry” and “drying” drink.

      It means that it’s a diuretic, which is not true.

      1. wait, what? oh… it’s not a diuretic when consumed in moderation. that explains my contradictory evidence.

  6. Talk about unproven health claims. I bet the FDA was all over them and made them destroy the signs. That’s why they’re so rare.

    1. I think that means that if you drink it while it’s still that hot you’re doing it wrong…

      1.  IIRC, the laxative and diuretic effects of caffeine fall off as you get accustomed to it. So, for me, who only consumes very rarely, it hits hard. For regular drinkers, not as much. Can’t find the cite at the moment, but I recall seeing a study in the last couple years to that effect.

  7. “…Remedy against the Spleen..”

    Finally, a weapon to match the intensity of our hatred for the evil of the Spleen! Down with the Spleen Empire!

  8. The greateſt Vertue of the coffee Berry lies in its freshneſs. It is of the utmoſt Importance that a Merchant’s coffee-Wares be teſted, a Taſk that must perforce fall to the fairer Sex. Woe betide a Gentlewoman who fails thuſly in her Duty; she must suffer the Conſequences.

    –Messers Chaſe and Sanborne

  9. It’s pretty easy to see how coffee got its reputation for treating various illnesses like “dropsy [edema], gout, and scurvy” when it really does nothing for any of these. I don’t think that European society had any widely-distributed stimulants at the time (tea was first introduced at about the same time) and so the effects of a cheap, easily-consumed stimulant on the population must have been enormous.

      1.  too bad there’s no easy way to link Stan Freberg’s wondrous schtick on the Declaration of Independence: “What’s this..  Per-fute of Happy-neff??”

  10.  So, this is a little unrelated, but if you’re entering a reCaptcha, one of the ones that tries to identify scanned text while keepin spammers away…

    It is proper to just go ahead and replace the “S that looks like an F”‘ with an actual s, right?  Cause that’s what I do, but sometimes I worry that I’m destroying the historicity of the original text style. 

    (I already worry enough when text is two words on top of each other and it’s clearly from a longer work where the text continues left to right on each side!)

  11. No comments yet on how English & European coffee houses were the first stock exchanges or how they were meeting grounds for intellectuals to plot overthrowing the government or church? Take that, Starbucks!

      1. Pepys discussed discussions at “strong water” houses too :)
        I presume he meant juniper gin, so: “How Holland changed discussion in England…”

    1. I wish you all could excise the st bcks bits, because their coffee is scorched for color rather than roasted for flavor. In Miami branches, due to an audience with experience, the stb cks people are finding themselves encouraged to branch out, and they’re calling the better-tasting “toasted” (rather than scorched) coffee “blonde.”

  12. was surprised to see the word “hypochondriac,” so I looked it up in the OED. Shure ’nuff, first English usage cited was 1599 :)

  13. I drink the coffee water and I have never had dropsy or scurvy so it must work.  Neither have I had any problems with the Orifice of the Stomack.

    Wait, I think I did have dropsy once, but it went away after I drank a double espresso.

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