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28 Sep
Wed / 2011

Reading with Rienzi: Six Glasses

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Every morning at Rienzi, I make a trek (or several…) from the kitchen to the Education office with a rather large cup of coffee (half and half, no sugar). On my way, I tend to cut through the Living Room bar, passing a display of beautiful pink and orange gilded porcelain – but as beautiful as it is, I don’t often stop to look at it. That is, until I read through the October selection for the Rienzi and Bayou Bend Book Club: A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage (check out the book’s cover for a cute visual pun).  The porcelain set I am referring to, is a tea and coffee service made by Dihl and Guérhard, a French porcelain manufacturer, active in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries.

While reading the book, I felt a keen sense of familiarity when I came upon Standage’s section on coffee.  Coffee became popular in the seventeenth century as the product of newly established trade routes, during a time of fascination with the New World and the East. This beverage is also enthusiastically consumed today, but I cannot imagine drinking my morning coffee in a dainty, gilded cup with a saucer. Instead, I (as probably many of you) drink my coffee in large gulps from a paper cup with a cardboard sleeve or mug (I have a one with a big C on it that I really like). Coffee; however, originated as an expensive commodity before becoming widely popular.

While coffee was served at home in elegant porcelain services, it was frequently consumed at coffeehouses as well.  In his book, Standage describes how the introduction of coffee greatly influenced The Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.  These were major cultural shifts during the eighteenth century, in which he believes coffeehouses played an important role. During this period, parts of Europe began to “reform society and advance knowledge” through reason. Major events such as the American and French Revolutions developed in this period.

As Standage notes coffee was: “the great soberer, the drink of clear headedness, the epitome of modernity and progress – the ideal beverage, in short, for the Age of Reason.” (Standage, 136). 

He argues that coffeehouses in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were epicenters of this new Enlightenment thinking and the exchange of ideas.  These centers facilitated conversation and argument – in effect, the custom of coffee-drinking supported the use philosophy and reason to better society:   

“When a seventeenth-century European businessman wanted to hear the latest business news, follow commodity prices, keep up with political gossip, find out what other people thought of a new book, or stay abreast of the latest scientific developments, all he had to do was walk into a coffeehouse.” (151)

The Dihl and Guérhard set at Rienzi demonstrates, in striking detail, elements of the Neoclassical style at the turn of the nineteenth century. Its decoration displays the erudition that is associated with coffee consumption – “arabesque” borders recall design motifs from antiquity, therefore connecting it to the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment of its current time.   

Standage’s argument places coffee as a key element in the development of modern society. Now, as I make my morning trek, I ponder what may have happened in the volatile and revolutionary Age of Enlightenment if coffee had not been so readily accepted by Europeans.

If you’re interested in discussing more about coffee, or the five other drinks Standage discusses in A History of the World in Six Glasses, please join us for a Book Club discussion on Wednesday, October 12th at 1 pm and 7 pm at Bayou Bend.

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About Casey Monahan

Casey Monahan

Casey Monahan joined Rienzi as education assistant in 2010. She received her B.A. in art history and history from the College of the Holy Cross, and her M.A. in art history from the University of Houston. At Rienzi, the Massachusetts native works with docents, tours, and other public programs. 

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