What can we learn from Benjamin Franklin's coffeehouse obsession?

There is something beguiling about coffeehouses. Something inspiring, enchanting and bewitching. Wisdom wafts through the room, carried upon waves of java-scented inspiration, provoking thoughts, ideas, projects and dreams. I can dwell in these enlightened spaces for hours, watching the world go by as creativity shoots across my brain. Rain at the window, coffee by my side, a notebook on the table – that is my happy place, just as it is for millions of people around the world. 

At one point, of course, it felt like coffeehouses were set to be overtaken by a zombie class of MacBook-wielding millennials with wireless earphones, ironic moustaches and deliberately oversized trousers. There was a hipster chic to working in coffeehouses. Not to pulling espressos and emptying bins, you understand, but to typing on laptops, remotely cajoling a portfolio of freelance obligations while baristas catered to your every whim.

I enjoy this phenomenon myself. It is all fun and games writing in a coffeehouse – until you need to use the toilet, necessitating a degrading choice between trusting a stranger to guard your possessions or dragging your textbooks into the cubicle. Still, there is an intangible romanticism about coffeeshop loitering, even if it polarises opinion and invites consternation from a certain strata of society.

Indeed, the appeal of coffeehouses as creative hubs has titillated many an intellectual titan, including Benjamin Franklin, a Founding Father of the United States, and by exploring his prolific use of coffeehouses, we can analyse their role in a functioning intelligentsia. Perhaps more pertinently, we can learn a thing or two about working in coffeeshops, streamlining our own processes so we do not have to work on that manuscript while having a poo.

How did Benjamin Franklin use coffeehouses?

Benjamin Franklin was the prototypical polymath – somebody whose expertise spans multiple spheres. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1706, Franklin was a writer, printer, publisher, scientist, statesman, inventor, diplomat and political strategist. Often branded The First American, Benjamin drafted and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. There was no end to his curiosity, which led to the wielding of significant influence in a range of areas.

To many, in fact, Franklin personified emergent Americanism, promulgating core national values like hard work, education, community and autonomy. He also played a leading role in the establishment of many civic institutions, most notably fire departments and libraries, and was a roving envoy to the confederate, spending plenty of time in Europe.

From the earliest days of his creative pottering, Franklin valued coffeehouses as sequestered enclaves of debate and wisdom. A staunch collaborator, Franklin believed in the free exchange of information and sought to learn from everybody he met. Altruistic and compassionate, Franklin rarely patented his experiments, viewing such formalities as restrictive of communal advancement. In this regard, Franklin was a great enabler of talent – internally and externally – and coffeehouses proved an ideal germination ground for his worldview.

In 1720s Philadelphia, for instance, Franklin formed the Junto Club, a mutual improvement society that probed questions of morality, politics, philosophy and business. Inspired by the Spanish junta, or assembly, the group met weekly in different taverns and coffeehouses, fermenting ideas and challenging preconceptions. The preferred Junto Club setting, coffeehouses duly became the pulsing heart of an enterprising zeitgeist that fuelled social mobility.

Of course, coffeehouses played a vital role in the Enlightenment writ large, the chance to gather and enjoy non-alcoholic beverages sparking new ideas and shaping alternative attitudes throughout Europe. In particular, a vibrant coffeehouse movement swept through industrialised London, centre of the sprawling British empire, as intellectuals were drawn to sober arenas of intriguing conversation. While the infamous pubs and taverns of Britain typically descended into boozy irrelevance, coffeehouses stood strong as forums of logical stimulation. Beer made people merry, but coffee made people wise, and introverted enigmas flocked to the latter with unprecedented zest.

Inside the London coffeehouses, long tables were positioned to accommodate more people than traditional bars, encouraging discussions rather than facilitating mere transactions. Newspaper clippings were left on coffee tables as prompts, sparking debate. Many coffeehouses even featured printing presses, allowing patrons to publish and distribute their own pamphlets. Books were provided, too, further stoking the academic ambience.

Such was the worldly miasma of burgeoning coffeehouses, they were often known as ‘penny universities’ that allowed people of all classes and backgrounds to mix over an egalitarian cup of Joe. Then, as now, coffee was seen as an affordable luxury, and aspirational types yearned to be seen among the caffeinated cognoscenti. Just as modern sophisticates hawk Starbucks cups as fashion symbols, bygone bulwarks frequented coffeehouses, developing networks and cache at every turn.

Franklin was unleashed into this fertile space in 1757, upon arriving in London. Sent to England by the Pennsylvania Assembly to protest against the Penn family, proprietors of the colony, Franklin was keen to meet likeminded people. London then had around 550 coffeehouses, according to most estimates, and Franklin toured many of them – from Batson’s Coffeehouse in Cornhill to the Smyrna Coffeehouse on Pall Mall – attempting to sew support and wield influence.

Franklin knew that disparate groups met in different coffeehouses, and hopping between them allowed him to stay abreast of heterogenous chitter-chatter. For instance, the New England Coffeehouse in Threadneedle Street was – fittingly – a gathering place for the merchants and ship captains of New England, and Franklin popped in to hear stories of Boston, keeping up with current affairs back home. A similar arrangement saw him lurk in the Virginia Coffeehouse near the Bank of England, digesting news from Chesapeake and the surrounding area. As such, Franklin used coffeehouses as a de facto social network, albeit without the annoying dog memes and OnlyFans adverts.

In this regard, Benjamin conducted the bulk of his work in coffeehouses, meeting influential scholars like Thomas Paine, William Pitt, John Pringle and John Pemberton over coffee. He cajoled associates to arrange a café rendezvous with Isaac Newton, but it sadly never materialised.

Franklin wrote letters and played chess in coffeehouses. He sold his own coffee beans and offered tips on brewing the perfect cup. He even had his post – including the American Weekly Mercury newspaper – delivered to the Pennsylvania Coffeehouse in Birchin Lane, where loyal patrons had pigeon holes for their correspondence. Sometimes, Franklin simply sat and observed the scene, listening to the gossip, rumour and conjecture that provided grist for the political mill. Coffeehouses soothed his busy mind and inspired his boldest ideas. 

Duly inspired, Franklin established The Club of Honest Whigs, a forerunner to the networking clubs we know today. A trailblazing cross between Ted Talks and BNI breakfasts, The Club convened on alternating Tuesdays at the London Coffeehouse near St Paul’s cathedral. Members discussed science, theology, politics and business proposals. It was the Junto Club with an English veneer, and a young Joseph Priestley credited the forum with boosting his confidence en route to a career distinguished by his 1774 discovery of oxygen.

Thus, to Franklin and his band of associates, coffeehouses were much more than toned-down pubs. Rather, to Benjamin and his contemporaries, coffeehouses were meeting places and networking joints, business settings and rumour mills. They were the cutting room floor of big projects and bold schemes. They were tabernacles of thinking, listening and hollering – the nucleus without which any society would wither and die. There was no end to coffeehouse versatility, and Franklin helped transform those buzzing fiefdoms into whatever people needed them to be.

Why Benjamin Franklin was the original gig economy coffeeshop dweller

Ultimately, then, a broad argument can be made that Benjamin Franklin was the original gig economy coffeehouse dweller – albeit without the AirPods, fake Ray-Ban glasses and plant-based aftershave. Sure, people have gathered in coffeehouses to share their inventions and pretensions since time immemorial, but Franklin may have been the first to formalise that phenomenon. Nay, to organise it and arrange it.

Without the encouragement and invitations accorded by Franklin, and without the structure he imbued in those café sessions, unconventional and collaborative workspaces may never have gained popularity. The gig economy – defined loosely as a labour market characterised by short-term contracts, freelance work and self-employment – may never have happened without Franklin. Well, at least not in the hip, appealing manner we know it today, all Zoom calls and latte art.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the café industry has long grappled with a dilemma posed by such gig economy romanticisation. As the internet became ubiquitous, anchoring oneself to a cubicle or desk seemed anachronistic, and people realised they could work wherever they wanted, so long as a reliable wi-fi connection could be sustained. Hence bloggers, journalists, vloggers and musicians flocking to coffeehouses – the aforementioned laptop warriors piggybacking free internet while nursing a large Americano. And hence incessant debate around the boundaries of coffeehouse working.

On one hand, some proprietors welcome loitering and dwelling as intrinsic to the intellectual charm of these spaces. A true Third Place, indeed, shaped in the spirit of Oldenburg and Schultz. However, other coffee aficionados resent table-hogging, with some chains even cutting off wi-fi access past a certain threshold and asking people to leave once their cup is empty.

Debate on such issues can often be interminably fierce. Nevertheless, regardless of the impassioned dichotomy of opinion it invariably spawns, the gig economy actually has deeper roots than the Silicon Valley myths would have us believe. And if Benjamin Franklin was a gig economy pioneer, allowing coffeehouses to shape his vision of America, who are we to quibble over a few extra hours of clogged bandwidth?

What can digital nomads learn from Benjamin Franklin?

In time, of course, gig economy professionals cloistered under a wider and more sophisticated umbrella: digital nomadism, an ethos whose acolytes work online from various locations of their choosing. Entrepreneur Pieter Levels, a doyen of the space, predicts there will be 1 billion digital nomads by 2035. Meanwhile, changes wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic have altered office cultures forever, with people quitting full-time jobs to pursue flexible alternatives at a record pace. As such, digital nomadism is here to stay, so perhaps we can look to Franklin for tips and tricks on how to proceed.

I’m undoubtedly a big advocate of digital nomadism. The way workers have reclaimed autonomy in recent years is a triumph to be celebrated. However, as a lover of coffeeshops, I also acknowledge that there is a danger of us stretching the work anywhere philosophy too far. The more we work in coffeehouses, the quicker we may lose sight of the original alluring purposes of doing so, and that may not be an easy tradition to recover.

Yes, Benjamin Franklin worked in coffeehouses, but we need to remember how he did so, if we are to learn from his experiences. Franklin communicated in coffeehouses. Franklin conversed and connected in coffeehouses. Franklin contributed to coffeehouses, above all else, and we are in danger of forgetting that. We are in danger of burying our heads a little too much into our computers, violating the romantic notions of communal intellectualism that initially inspired us.

Moreover, there is a wider debate at play here: does working in coffeeshops actually degrade the Third Place concept that makes them so inviting from the outset? By cluttering tables with papers, keyboards and music players, are we actually just dumping paraphernalia from our First and Second places – our homes and workplaces – into a different environment? Semantically, that would seem to be the case, but those are broader nuances that must be explored on another day.

For the time being, it is enough for me to know that, centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin, the archetypal pioneer, enjoyed a few things I now enjoy, too. Franklin liked to sit in a coffeehouse and watch the world go by – or, perhaps more accurately, watch the world pop in. That is a timeless, intrinsic pleasure, and maybe we could all benefit by unplugging occasionally to savour its simple joy.

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