Button’s Coffee House: Fashionable Eighteenth-Century Site

Will’s Coffee House was the intellectual and provocative den for the wits of John Dryden’s time, but after Dryden’s death the “it” place became Button’s Coffee House. Button’s came about because of Joseph Addison, an English essayist, poet, playwright, and politician. He established Daniel Button, the one time servant to Charlotte, Countess of Warwick, in a building as chief waiter “over against Tom’s, near the middle of the south side of … [Russell] street,”[1] in Covent Garden in 1712. At the time it was also fashionable to name a place based on the head waiter. Thus, it became called Button’s Coffee House.

Button's Coffee House: Joseph Addison, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Joseph Addison. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Button’s chief patron was Addison, who before marrying Lady Warwick, breakfasted every day with either “Steel, Budgell, Philips, Carey, Davenant, … [or] Colonel Brett … [and then went] to Button’s, and then to some tavern again, for supper.”[2] However, Addison’s time at Button’s Coffee House was soon stretched to sometimes last as long as “five or six hours; and sometimes far into the night.”[3] That may have partly had to do with his home life. He had worked as a tutor for Charlotte’s son before marrying her and she was described as arrogant and imperious, and her son, Edward Rich, was said to be unfriendly. 

After its opening, Button’s Coffee House became the “conventional offices of the ‘Guardian,'”[4] a short-lived newspaper founded in London in 1713 by Richard Steele that featured Joseph Addison, Thomas Tickell, Alexander Pope, and Ambrose Philips. To accommodate these contributions, the Guardian decided to erect a unique box to hold letters and papers. It was a magnificently carved lion’s head and described as:

“[I]n imitation of those … in Venice, through which all the private commonwealth is said to pass. This head is to open a most wide and voracious mouth, which shall take in such letters and papers as are conveyed to me by my correspondents, it being my resolution to have a particular regard to all such matters as come to my hands through the mouth of the lion.”[5]

It was also noted that whatever submissions were dropped through the lion’s head by authors would be “digest[ed] for the use of the publick [and] published.”[6] In addition, the lion’s head was “reckoned the best head in England.”[7] It was designed by William Hogarth and described as having “a most wide and voracious mouth.”[8] It was further touted as being a piece of excellent workmanship:

“[D]esigned … in imitation of the antique Egyptian lion, the face of it being compounded out of that of a lion and a wizard. The features are strong and well furrowed. The whiskers are admired by all that have seen them. It is planted on the western side of the Coffee-house, holding its paws under the chin … a proper emblem of knowledge and action, being all head and paws.”[9]

Button's Coffee House - Lion's Head, Public Domain

Lion’s head at Button’s Coffee House. Public domain.

Underneath the head was also a box that held submissions and inscribed directly beneath the head was the following couplet:

“Cervantur magnis isti Cervicibus ungues:
Non nisi delictâ pasciture ille ferâ.”[10]

Numerous famous and infamous people met at Button’s Coffee House. Addison and Steel did in “large flowing flaxen wigs.”[11] Other famous patrons, besides Tickell, Pope, and Philips included  Dr. Jonathan Swift (satirist, poet, cleric, political pamphleteer, and essayist who wrote Gulliver’s Travels), Martin Folkes, (English antiquary, numismatist mathematician, and astronomer), and Dr. John Arbuthnot (Scottish physician, satirist and polymath and who had at one point was appointed to care for Peter the Wild Boy). However, the most infamous of Buttons’ patrons was James MacLaine, a tall, good-looking, and fashionable Irish highwayman, who was eventually hanged for his crimes.

Button's Coffee House

Notables at Button’s Coffee House. Public domain.

Button’s Coffee House remained “in vogue until Addison’s death and Steele’s retirement to Wales, after which the house was deserted; the coffee-drinkers went to the Bedford Coffee-house, the dinner parties to the Shakspeare [sic].”[12] Button died about a year before Philadelphia Austen (sister to George Austen, aunt to Jane Austen, and mother to Eliza de Feuillide) was born. Button’s death happened in early October 1731 after three days of illness. Soon thereafter Button’s became a private residence.

As for the lion’s head, numerous people wanted to purchase it. Lord Chesterfield attempted to buy it for fifty guineas, but the “formidable head can be traced “from ‘Button’s’ to the ‘Shakespeare’ Tavern, under Covent Garden Piazza, and thence to the ‘Richardson’s Hotel,’ in the same place from which it was removed to Woburn Abbey, being bought by the Duke of Bedford.”[13]

Button's coffee house - Woburn Abbey

Woburn Abbey, Public domain.

References:

  • [1] Timbs, John, Club Life of London with Anecdotes of the Clubs, Coffee-Houses, and Taverns of the Metropolis During the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries, Vol. 2, 1866, p. 64.
  • [2] Thornbury, George Walter, Old and New London, 1880, p. 227.
  • [3] Timbs, p. 65.
  • [4] Thornbury, p. 227.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Timbs, p. 66.
  • [7] The Literary World, Vol. 2, 1840, p. 89.
  • [8] Thornbury, p. 227.
  • [9] Ibid, p. 278.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 227.
  • [11] Timbs, p. 70.
  • [12] Ibid., p. 71.
  • [13] Thornbury, p. 227.

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