‘Delicious Libations’: Representing the Nineteenth-Century Brazil-U.S. Coffee Trade


Caroline L. Gillaspie


Art History

Project Title:

‘Delicious Libations’: Representing the Nineteenth-Century Brazil-U.S. Coffee Trade

Caroline Gillaspie is a PhD Candidate in Art History specializing in the art of the U.S. and Latin America. Her dissertation examines the visual culture of the 19th-century Brazil-U.S. coffee trade, tracing the representations of American coffee culture from bean to cup. In addition to the Connect NY Fellowship, her research has been supported by fellowships from the Terra Foundation for American Art, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Library Company of Philadelphia. Caroline has worked at the Brooklyn Museum and N-YHS and currently teaches at CUNY CityTech and Pratt Institute.


My dissertation examines the visual culture of coffee harvesting in Brazil alongside consumption in the U.S., tracing the representation of this single commodity from plantation views to depictions of coffee drinking in social spaces such as coffee houses, World’s Fairs, and war camps. Furthering transnational scholarship, my analysis of these images reveals the Pan-American exchanges that resulted from the movement of coffee and slaves, and interrogates the representation of a growing U.S. coffee culture and the resultant social and environmental injustices on Brazilian plantations. Additionally, this research advances the ecocritical turn in Art History through analyses of landscapes, port images, cityscapes, and genre scenes that consider the environmental injustices of the coffee industry.

In the late 1790s, when Francis Guy painted his scene of the Tontine Coffee House in Lower Manhattan, the intersection of Wall Street and Water Street, known as Coffee House Slip, was a bustling site of commercial exchange.[1] Guy’s inclusion of cargo, laborers, and businessmen surrounding the Tontine indicates this location’s significance for merchants who learned of shipping news and made commodity trades at the establishment. Founded by merchants, the coffee house was constructed on the northwest corner of this intersection in 1793, and became the first home of the New York Stock and Exchange Board.[2] By this time, Caribbean and Latin American sugar cane and coffee beans were frequently imported to North America, and rum and coffee were served in coffee houses amid business dealings and political discourse.

The Connect New York Fellowship supported my research on Guy’s painting and the global connections that were forged at New York’s Tontine Coffee House and the intersection outside its doors. At the New-York Historical Society, I examined the entire collection of Tontine Coffee House business records.[3] This included initial plans to establish the coffee house; minutes for meetings of the Tontine’s subscribers; records of tenants who rented the space; account books and receipts for repairs, improvements, and furnishings for the establishment; and sketches for proposed renovation plans for the interior coffee and bar rooms. The Tontine’s account books indicate the purchase of fine interior furnishings—Windsor chairs, dining tables, mirrors, chandeliers, sideboards, a clock, and a telescope—suggesting a comfortable, even luxurious setting for merchants’ transactions. Blueprint sketches from 1823 by John McComb delineate the size and layout of both the coffee room and bar room, which opened onto the building’s front porch. While American coffee houses equated themselves with similar British establishments, as opposed to lowly taverns, they still served plenty of liquor, and the Tontine’s barroom was significantly larger than its coffee room.[4]

These documents are essential to illuminate the dual function of the Tontine Coffee House and contextualize Guy’s rendering of the establishment. This business was a drinking establishment for the consumption of coffee and liquors sold by the current tenant in the downstairs bar and coffee rooms. It also functioned as a meeting hall for merchants who conducted commercial exchanges and held auctions in either the “Exchange Room” downstairs or the “Long Room” upstairs. As indicated in Guy’s painting and other nineteenth-century visual depictions of Coffee House Slip, the coffee house is within close reach of the bustling East River piers. In addition to markets for food commodities like coffee and sugar, Coffee House Slip was home to New York’s slave market.[5] Although Guy incorporates black figures into his cityscape that positively reflects the busy exchange place, he omits blatant reference to the selling of enslaved individuals at this precise intersection, obscuring a significant facet of the history of Coffee House Slip.

[1] Guy’s painting is housed at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan. https://www.nyhistory.org/exhibit/tontine-coffee-house-nyc

[2] The Merchant’s Coffee House was initially established in 1737 on the same corner that the Tontine later occupied. It moved to the south east corner in 1772 and is also visible at the far right of Guy’s painting. The intersection represented in this image was referred to as Coffee House Slip for the presence of the earlier establishment. The Merchant’s Coffee House burned down in 1804. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909, vol. 6 (New York: Robert H. Dodd, 1928).

[3] Tontine Coffee-House Records, The New-York Historical Society.

[4] Such British establishments got the nicknames “penny universities” as they were places where intellectual ideas were read and discussed over stimulating cups of coffee.

[5] Other images represent New York’s Slave Market located on Wall Street near the piers. See for example, Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Slave Market In Wall Street ; Puncheons Of Rum.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed August 27, 2019. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-06cc-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99; The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “New York slave market about 1730” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1902. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-4097-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

About the author: Param Ajmera