Balancing Virtue and Vice: Dueling Representations of the Proprietress in the London Coffeehouse

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2018
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Haverford College. Department of History
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eng
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Regarded as a setting for civilized debates and gentility, the coffeehouse in eighteenth-century London distinguished itself as the epicenter of political dissent, intellectual discourse, and the circulation of news. Contemporary prints and images of the coffeehouse challenge this depiction and present it as a boisterous space of debauchery, altercation, and prostitution. The emergence of the coffeehouse coincided with a demographic and commercial explosion at the turn of the eighteenth century. A rise in crime, a preference for celibacy, and an increase in the visibility of prostitution incited moral concern. To combat this perceived moral crisis, campaigns for moral reform such as the Society for the Reformation of Manners formed to expunge public vice from the streets. As a result, immorality retreated into private venues, such as the coffeehouse. As the symbolic figurehead for the London coffeehouse, the female proprietress was linked to the moral ills that pervaded her business. The anxiety concerning this debauchery converged on the coffeehouse’s female owner, revealing the distrust of single, working women. Thus, the association between the coffeehouse and the self-sufficient, unmarried business-woman crystallized the apprehensions that accompanied London’s transition to a commercial society and the demise of traditional structures of urban life like family, household, and work.
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