The history of the first American coffee houses is linked to the history of the first hostels and taverns of the Continent. Boston, the metropolis of Massachusetts, was the largest colonial social center of New England. The first coffee houses in that area were actually taverns which gradually added coffee to their menus. British government officials who used to visit London frequently transferred their knowledge of coffee from Europe to the American Continent. Their stories intrigued the American hostels’ and taverns’ owners, who eventually decided to convert their businesses exclusively into coffee houses.
It is said that Dorothy Jones was the first who was given the license to sell “coffee and cuchaletto”, with the latter being the 17th-century diction for chocolate or cocoa. Dating back to 1967, Jones’ license is commonly acknowledged as the first written reference to coffee in the Massachusetts Colony. In the last quarter of the 17th century countless taverns in Boston had turned into coffee houses. Amongst the most notable ones, according to Boston’s historical records, were the King's Head, at the corner of Fleet and North Streets; the Indian Queen on an alleyway leading from Washington Street to Hawley Street; the Sun, in Faneuil Hall Square, and the Green Dragon. Established in 1691, the King’s Head soon became a famous gathering place for crown officers and citizens of the higher class of the colonial state. The Indian Queen was also a famous resort for the crown officers of the Province House.
Set up in 1673 by Nathaniel Bishop, it stood for more than 145 years as the Indian Queen and was later on renamed as the Washington Coffee House, which was notorious throughout New England as the starting point for the Roxbury “hourlies”; the stagecoaches that went from Boston to Roxbury every hour. The Green Dragon was one of the most celebrated of Boston’s coffee-house/taverns. It was situated on Union Street, in the heart of the town’s business center from 1697 to 1832 and hosted all the important local and national events of the region. British soldiers, colonial governors, crown officers, earls and dukes, citizens of the higher class, revolutionists of the lower classes, conspirators of the Boston Tea Party, and patriots – all gathered at the Green Dragon to discuss about their various interests and plans over a cup of coffee. According to Daniel Webster, the Green Dragon constituted the “headquarters of the Revolution”. It was there that Warren, James Otis, John Adams, and Paul Revere met as a “ways and means committee” to secure freedom for the American colonies. This two-flour-coffee house was a brick structure with a sharply pitched roof. A sign bearing the figure of a green dragon hung over its entrance.
The City Tavern or Merchant’s cafe owned by Daniel Smith was one of the most popular coffee houses in Philadelphia. This notorious coffee house was built in 1773 using the best London coffee houses as its pattern. For more than a quarter of the century it was a meeting point of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and other famous leaders who were frequent visitors of Philadelphia. The exact date when the City Tavern was renamed as the Merchant’s coffee house is unknown.
Another famous American Coffee House was the Exchange Coffee House, built in 1808 and designed by Charles Bulfinch. This notorious coffee place opened its doors to the public three years after construction. It was situated in Congress Street and was part of the sole skyscraper in Boston at the time. The Exchange Coffee House was probably the most costly and ambitious coffee house in America ever. Made of stone marble and brick, it was seven stories high and cost more than half a million dollars to complete. The Exchange was patterned after Lloyd's cafe and was the meeting point for maritime workers just like Lloyd's was in London. It hosted mariners, naval officers and ship brokers, who gathered to talk about their work and consult records of ship arrivals and departures. Manifest and charters was not the only thing they poured over however and many kinds of shaky business and backroom deals were conducted there daily. The Exchange however only lasted for a decade and we know that it was entirely destroyed by fire in 1818. A new Exchange Coffee House was eventually built in its place, but except for the name it had none of the character or atmosphere of the original.