The first coffee house to open in Britain was opened in Oxford in 1650 by a Jew called Jacob, and was followed in 1652 by the opening of the first coffee house in London by Pasqua Rosee, a native of Turkey and the former servant of a merchant. The popularity of this first establishment was such that it was imitated widely and coffee houses became ubiquitous in the City of London. Known as the Penny Universities, (the entry fee, which included a cup of coffee, was one penny), as it was reckoned that you could learn as much there as going to university, the coffee houses became the gathering places of merchants, scholars, politicians, businessmen and the like.
The coffee houses played an important part in the development of the City of London. For instance, the Edward Lloyd coffee house established in 1688 later became Lloyds of London. Other coffee houses where the stock jobbers congregated to do business after being expelled from the Royal Exchange formed the basis for what was to eventually become the London Stock Exchange.
The popularity of coffee drinking is said to have spread to the rest of Europe from the Ottoman Empire after the Battle of Vienna in 1683.
The idea of a table specifically used for serving hot drinks or putting down one's cup between sips predates the coffee table in Europe by some time. In Britain in 1750 tea drinking was at the height of fashion and there was increasing demand for tea tables. There were pillar and claw tripod tea tables with a round top that were later hinged and were taller than present day coffee tables. There were also examples of tea or china tables that were rectangular. Other forms of tables in use at this time which could be placed near to a sofa were called occasional tables, end tables, and centre tables.
High backed settees used in the latter part of the 17th century and the early part of the 18th century were gradually replaced by low back sofas around about 1780 and these sofas were sometimes used in conjunction with sofa tables. Sofa tables were designed to stand at the back of the sofa, a development that had been made feasible by the lower back. They might have a candle on them and could be used to put down a book or a cup of tea or coffee between sips. All of these tables to some extent could be considered to be the predecessors of the modern coffee table.
The first wooden tables, in Britain, specifically designed
called coffee tables, were made during the late Victorian era.
There is a table designed by E.W. Godwin in 1868 and made in large numbers by William Watt and Collinson and Lock which is listed as a coffee table in 'Victorian Furniture' by R. W. Symonds & B. B. Whineray and also in 'The Country Life book of English Furniture' by Edward T. Joy. If this was indeed called a coffee table at the time, it may be one of the first examples of a coffee table made in Europe. Other sources, however, merely list it as a table so it is hard to be sure. What is notable about this table is that it is not a low table at all, but is actually about 27 inches high.
E. W. Godwin's influence can be seen in the furniture of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and it is quoted in several books about furniture that there are known examples of coffee tables made by it's proponents although no specific examples are given. But as Arts and Crafts furniture generally favoured an emphasis on the vertical components, they would have been unlikely to design a long low coffee table so it is probable that this design feature of coffee tables is a later one. There are, for instance, Art Nouveau coffee tables which are low tables. This idea may have been introduced from the Ottoman Empire, based on the tables in use in tea gardens, but it is worth noting that countries such as India and Japan also had the tradition of eating and drinking at low level and consequently used low tables. Japanese influences on English furniture design were reflected in the Anglo-Japanese style which was hugely popular throughout the 1870's and 1880's and so Japan is much more likely to be the source for the idea of a long low table.
It would appear that there are no known examples of coffee tables made before the mid to late 19th century. The fondness of furniture manufacturers for revivalism, from Victorian times onwards, confuses this issue as one can find examples of coffee tables in styles that would suggest erroneously that they were made at an earlier date. A web search of antique dealers will reveal numerous examples of, for instance, Louis XVI style or Georgian style coffee tables but not authentic coffee tables from those periods.
is that, in the 20th century when coffee tables became increasingly
popular, it was not unknown for the legs of tables, even antique
tables, to be shortened to make a coffee table. This could falsely
create the idea that coffee tables had originated at the earlier date
that the table had been made.
Documents from the 17th and 18th century do not yield any mention of coffee tables. A search of Samuel Pepys Diary, (1633-1703), for instance reveals hundreds of references to the coffee house and to tables of various kinds but no reference to coffee tables. Nor can one find an example of a coffee table design in the pattern books of Thomas Sheraton or George Hepplewhite.
There is an interesting picture painted in 1760 of Marie Antoinette, (1775-1793), in which her sister Marie-Therese is serving coffee to her husband in front of the fire (above right). It is interesting in that, although she is serving coffee, the table is a pillar and claw tripod table of the type which, often with the addition of a hinged top, would have been known as a tea table.
Joseph Aronson defines a coffee table in 1938 as, "Low wide table now used before a sofa or couch." He adds, "There is no historical precedent......( my underline), which again suggests that coffee tables were a late development in the history of furniture.
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Researched & written by Nick at TheCoffeeTable.co.uk - Copyright © TheCoffeeTable.co.uk - Telephone: 01420 474862
READING SOURCES: The Country Life book of English Furniture - Edward T Joy. Pub: Hamlyn. The New Architecture And The Bauhaus - Walter Gropius. Pub: Faber & Faber. Mies van der Rohe - Peter Blake. Pub: Penguin Books. Going for a Song: English Furniture - Max Robinson. Pub: BBC. Miller’s Antiques Price Guides - Martin & Judith Miller. Pub: Millers Publications. Diary of Samuel Pepys - Pub: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. Victorian Furniture - R.W. Symonds & B.B. Whineray Pub: Country Life Ltd.