The Tale of the Tatler
The Birth of the Magazine and the Rise of the Coffeehouse
From a 21st century perspective, the social and intellectual life of the 17th and 18th century English coffeehouse must seem rich and rarified. The popular image today is of locations that were meeting places for the literati and politically engaged to work, discuss and debate. In an era when news spread slowly, coffeehouses became fonts of information and gossip, and sites of publishing and literature, giving birth to famous periodicals such as Richard Steele’s The Tatler and, its follow-up, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s The Spectator. In the most celebratory depictions, the coffeehouses gave rise to modern culture and political liberty.
The reality is a bit more complicated, in no small part because the social and intellectual value of the coffeehouses was debated almost from the moment of their inception. The first coffeehouse in England opened in 1652 in Oxford, where a number of them opened and became popular with the university’s scholars and anybody else sufficiently interested in “higher culture.” Within a couple of decades, London had even more of them. In addition to serving as a venue for the learned to meet and engage in discussion, they also provided space for a variety of functions, including lessons on languages and a variety of “gentlemanly” arts. They became places to transact business over time: Lloyd’s of London, the famous insurer, began as a coffeehouse where shipping deals were brokered over cups of coffee.
But the coffeehouses’ popularity also threatened in many ways the elite space that universities had constructed for themselves as centers of learning: If anybody, in theory, could mingle in a coffee shop, how intellectual could such a place possibly be? These establishments were rapidly satirized as arenas for dilettantes to stage vapid debates and show off their empty learning. The Rota Club in London was one short-lived institution whose members were mocked as “learned asses” for being both shallow and pedantic. To be a “penny university,” as the coffeehouses were occasionally called, was no great compliment, and instead spoke to the cheapness of the education one could receive there.
The coffeehouses also were born after the restitution of the monarchy, a tumultuous time in English politics. As sites of rumors and information, they were, in the parlance of present times, purveyors of fake news. Charles II went so far as to issue a royal proclamation to “command all his loveing subjects of whatever state or condition soe they may be … that they [shall not] utter or publish any false newes or reports …” The coffee shops weathered periodic political crises, though they were under the watchful eye of monarchs eager to make sure their subjects toed the line. After the Glorious Revolution, King William III periodically sent troops to arrest suspected dissidents at their favorite coffeehouses.
This concern was only exacerbated with the rise of party politics in Britain, creating Tory coffee shops and Whig coffee shops. Those in turn gave rise to their own newspapers, satisfying the needs of a population hungry for information (and, in something we might recognize today, validation of what they already suspected to be true). At a time when Parliament refused to make its proceedings public, coffeehouses became places where the public might learn how members voted.
It was this peculiar set of circumstances that spawned The Tatler, a newspaper that was more like a journal or magazine, and its successor, The Spectator. Both men frequented Child’s coffeehouse in London, a popular haunt of the city’s doctors and clergy. By modern standards, these were short-lived publications, running for a combined total of just three years, from 1709 to 1712. The Tatler was written under a pseudonym, Isaac Bickerstaff, Esquire, named after a Jonathan Swift pseudonym.
From the beginning, Steele claimed that he wanted to transcend the news-mad culture of the early 18th century, which was itself rooted in a political culture that was only beginning to even think in terms of popular participation, and regarded that development as dangerous. Their solution was to create a new “polite” culture that would allow for a more harmonious political and cultural order in Britain. With its title, The Tatler mocked the gossipy coffeehouses and the fashion-obsessed fops whom Steele and Addison regarded as excessively effeminate. Their greatest scorn, however, was heaped on the “newsmonger,” a person so obsessed with the affairs of the day that they neglected their own lives. Politics was meant to be dispassionate.
The Tatler and The Spectator largely eschewed “news” in favor of cultural reporting as well as “gossip” supposedly collected from around London, much of which was falsified to create stories that would reinforce Addison’s and Steele’s points about the best ways to behave as a man (with few exceptions, Addison and Steele imagined the coffeehouse as a space for men exclusively). Contributors came from various coffeehouses around the city. These publications helped to popularize the periodical essay, a new form of publishing that variously offered literary criticisms, scholarly discussions that were designed to be accessible to all, gossip, and essays from the authors about manners and customs.
In terms of readership and influence, The Tatler and The Spectator were wildly successful. Each issue sold around 3,000 to 4,000 copies, and Addison and Steele estimated that each was read by about 20 different people in coffeehouses around the city. Probably one-tenth of the population of London read these periodicals. They wielded tremendous influence in England, inspiring several generations’ worth of successors and imitators, including one by Samuel Johnson, arguably England’s foremost man of letters.
Eventually, the genre of periodical essays shifted into something we would recognize today, the magazine, which had come into its own as a mature medium by the middle of the 18th century. Coffeehouses had provoked a small social crisis in England, and by trying to create a new social order, Steele and Addison helped give birth to modern publishing and readership. Think about that as you enjoy your coffee.