I’ve spent the past three weeks immersed in 17th and early 18th century coffee houses, writing content, articles, and blogs for my present role. I’ve spent the past 25 years dipping in and out of 17th century coffee shops and I find it odd that I keep coming back to the subject. As always, I’ve discovered new things and new angles on the subject. This time I even experimented with making 17th century style coffee and chocolate. During these past few weeks, the weather has got colder and colder. Just when I think it can’t get any colder, it does.
In my research I keep coming across descriptions of the coffee houses. The men would spend all day in them, snug by the roaring fire that roasted the coffee beans, boiled the coffee, and kept it warm it in those distinctive coffee pots. My mind went to those 17th century Londoners who were not in the toasty coffee houses, but out on the streets, working, travelling, and meeting people in this type of weather.
Earlier in the year I talked about the heatwave and the replica 1700 three-piece suit I used to wear at historic visitor attractions. I think that fashion lends itself to this cold weather. My outfit was woollen and close fitting which kept the warmth in. The shoes were sturdy and had heels, keeping me above the frozen stone flagstones. I was representing someone with money, so I had the fashion accessories, the cape and hand muff, which all helped to protect from the cold. It was needed when the winter turned to freezing. There were no warm rooms; they all tended to be of tall interiors with inefficient 19th century heating, if there was any there at all.
On reflection, one thing that did keep me warm was the full-bottomed periwig. A huge construction that originally was made of human hair, and so much of it. I’m not sure if my wig was made of human hair, although it did look like it and we had a hairdresser who came in regularly to dress the wigs. It kept my head warm, as well as the back and sides of my neck.
Working at home now, I am not quite prepared for this type of weather. I’ve noticed many aspects of the day that, due to the cold weather, have gone askew. My hands are cold and dry from the copious amounts of typing that I do. My body is not generating heat, as I am rooted to the spot where my laptop is, although I am standing. I suddenly find myself unable to think, as the cold also affects my concentration.
The late 17th century was cold. There were plenty of heavy snowfalls and frosts in the 1690s, and the decade before saw frost fairs on the frozen River Thames. Looking at the famous image of the coffee house, which was during this time (not 1668 as is written in the bottom lefthand corner – you can tell by the clothes), the men are all wearing these full-bottomed periwigs, their woollen and velvet three-piece suits, and there is a roaring fire in the corner. It is interesting how they are sitting in a position that I would have to sit when wearing my 1700s suit. The suit dictated my deportment. The periwigs were a symbol of status. They cost the earth to buy and maintain, and were highly visible to one and all. It wasn’t simply following fashion; by wearing one you were sending out messages of wealth and power. But this cold weather makes me think: was this fashion also a result of the freezing weather they had experienced for a couple of decades or more? As the suit dictated my deportment, the weather dictated the fashion.
© The Trustees of the British Museum.