So I was joking around with my coworkers about what it must have been like in London when coffee houses first hit the scene. Folks running around all stoked up on their first caffeine rush and all that. But then we wondered what they used to before coffee and tea to put a zip in their step. I said they didn’t have anything for that because caffeine was the first stimulant to get to Europe. Everything else was a depressant like alcohol. Opium was available but it’s a narcotic that won’t get you humming along. Now I wonder if i’m right about all this.
So, was caffeine the first stimulant to reach Europe?
Coffee first reached Europe in 1573, according to Wikipedia. That’s surprisinghly late, considering that coffee originated in Ethiopia, and there were no significant barriers to its getting to Europe. But coffee was first brewed in the mid-15th century even in its home state (although there were mentions of earlier non-beverage use), so coffee made its way to Europe pretty soon after it was first used as a beverage.
Not familiar with any descriptions of early caffeine users and their hyper-awake state.
Tea, I’m surprised to observe, is first credited to Ming dynasty China circa 1590*, and hit Europe in 1610 when the Dutch brought it over.
Other major caffeine sources – chocolate, yerba mate, cola, guarana – are New World sources.
I’m really surprised at the late introduction of caffeine. Some of the legends about tea give the impression of much greater age.
*Wikipedia, on the other hand, credits it to the Tang dynasty, circa 600-900 CE
Khat is an African stimulant, in wide use today (and legal in many African countries). But it reportedly doesn’t travel well. Even in the age of air travel it hasn’t made significant inroads in Europe or the US (and it’s illegal in both). In view of the fact that its power declkines after being harvested, I’m not surprised it wasn’t used in Europe.
Cocaine, of course, was also New World.
Excellent question, and it’s surprising how late all of this made its way to Europe.
There was also betel, whose nuts and leaves can be used as a stimulant. It was fairly common in Persia and lands to the east but its use apparently didn’t travel much westward into the Mediterranean and Europe.
It is a historical curiosity but it appears the western world was just mellowing out until the sixteenth century.
What stimulants followed after caffeine? Sugar is an old world crop that had been around long before coffee and tea made their European debut. But it became plentiful and cheap when the sugar trade began in the Caribbean. It’s not really a stimulant, but I imagine a sugar rush somewhat exacerbated the effect of the new stimulating drinks.
The Danish-Norwegian writer Holberg described the caffeine craze in 18th century Copenhagen as pretty dang sweet, because it - quoting from memory here - “allows our ladies to pay up to ten visits a day, and yet return home reasonably sober”!
This is from Oxfeldt, Nordic Orientalism. Paris and the Cosmopolitan Imagination 1800-1900.
Bonus factoid: During his wild-‘n’-crazy Copenhagen years, Knut Hamsun - the great Norwegian writer, Nazi asshole, and Twin Peaks trivia footnote - would hand out raw coffee beans to his free-wheeling bohemian pals as a makeshift hangover cure.