Focusing on four European cities between c.1600 and c.1850 – Amsterdam, Hamburg, London, and Stockholm – this two-year project (2019–21) explores the impact of new intoxicants on urban public spaces, the role of urban public spaces in assimilating them into European behaviours, and the often exploitative international systems through which they were produced, trafficked, and consumed. Via our events, our online exhibition, and our work with museums, NGOs, and schools, we hope to demonstrate that understanding these processes offers a vital historical perspective on urgent contemporary questions surrounding drug use and abuse, addiction, migration, inclusion and exclusion within public spaces, and the place of intoxicating substances within everyday life.
Thinking about intoxicating spaces, apothecary shops are probably not what springs to mind first. Yet, these places are very relevant in discussing the assimilation of new intoxicants into European diets. It may seem strange to us today, but they virtually all started out as medicinal drugs. For example, sugar was believed to remedy coughing and to support the stomach, kidneys, and bladder, amongst others. Similarly, tobacco could be applied for many different conditions ranging from scurvy and tetanus to epilepsy and constipation.
A German broadside published in 1658. Eight vignette etchings and a poem recount the story of tobacco’s arrival in Europe, and its ‘praiseworthy use by some German heroes/as well as the same’s real power and effect’. In the first image Native Americans, some adorned with feathered headdresses and smoking long pipes, appear to dance about with abandon.
One of early modern London’s most common intoxicating spaces was the coffeehouse; a 1739 survey by historian and topographer William Maitland identified 551 institutions in the capital (although the real figure was probably higher), while by the turn of the nineteenth century there were around 2,000 metropolitan establishments, making London the most caffeinated city in the world outside Constantinople. At a loose end before a meeting a couple of weeks ago, I decided to go on in search of a handful of better-known City coffeehouses to see what remains of them within the urban landscape.