Here is an interesting piece of history that proves -- yet again -- that there is nothing new under the sun!
We are always interested in the connection between coffee and politics and American history around here. It seems like whenever momentous events are afoot, coffee is in the background somewhere. New Englanders, for example, learned to drink coffee shortly after they dumped all the tea into Boston Harbor.
Theodore Roosevelt was well-known as a coffee enthusiast, and apparently he liked it so well that he drank out of a mug that was described as the size of a bathtub! He prefered his coffee imported from Brazil and prepared well, as opposed to the dominant trends of the day which included canned coffees with little flavor.
As often happens, Teddy passed his love of the bean down to his offspring. Three sons, his daughter and their cousin also became coffee enthusiasts but were disappointed with the offerings available to them.
In 1919 the group opened up the precursor to the hipster coffee shops available today. It was called Roosevelt’s Brazilian Coffee House. Later the shops -- eventually there were four of them -- were renamed the Double R Coffee House due to a dispute over the name “Brazilian Coffee House”. The coffee houses were a novelty at that time in NYC. In the throes of Prohibition, the coffee houses provided an alternative to the bars shuttering up all over the city. In addition, the Roosevelt clan had a novel idea for a coffee house: provide a comfortable place where people can come to meet each other, conduct business and perhaps write letters. Sounds familiar!
At the time the coffee houses were established, New York City was receiving an influx of immigrants who brought their own coffee traditions with them. Unfortunately -- in the Roosevelt opinion -- one of their traditions was to guzzle and go, drinking their coffee quickly and vacating their spot. The Roosevelts longed to create a sociable space where community could gather, stay and connect. It appears to have worked, too. Pulp gothic fiction legend H.P. Lovecraft used to meet at one of the locations with his circle of friends, known as the Kalem Club. He even included an ode to the Double R among his work. Our favorite snippet from the ode says,
Here may free souls forget the grind
Of busy hour and bustling crowd
And sparkling brightly mind to mind
Display their inmost dreams aloud
The shops were modeled on the old London coffee houses, and featured a bar in the center of the shop where a barista roasted coffee and prepared it fresh for the customer. From the descriptions given, they were offering pourovers. The shops were furnished with little oak tables and chairs (small enough for tete a tete’s, said one reporter), writing materials as well as dictionaries and thesauruses scattered around the room. Can’t help but think that the writing materials are analagous to our power plugs, while the dictionaries were the “free internet” of the day! The walls were decorated with rich green and gold paper, and featured portraits of infamous coffee drinkers such as Voltaire, Shakespeare and -- of course -- Papa Teddy Roosevelt.
One innovation appeared not to catch on: eventually they hoped to have Brazilian women in costume serve the coffee to the patrons.
The Double R Coffee Houses had one other unique rule: patrons were cut off after three cups of coffee. Apparently there was some suspicion that, in the prohibition style of the day, there were other magic ingredients being slipped into the pourovers!
So the next time you walk past a Starbucks or other coffee bar filled with hipsters meeting earnestly over Moleskine notebooks and laptops, remember that they are following in a grand and splendid historical tradition. Step in for awhile, grab a free dictionary and tip your hat to grand old Theodore Roosevelt, who passed his love of the bean on to many a frenzied New Yorker.
Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/roosevelt-family-built-new-york-coffee-chain-50-years-starbucks-180953398/#1oEyGl2rJ5wSFgYO.99