I became intrigued by a taken-for-granted term we use often, “coffee table”. I knew that coffee was only becoming popular in Europe, (where the foundation of modern furniture development began), in the 1600s and wondered who made the first coffee table or coined the term.
So a bit of research revealed that the first coffee house opened in Britain in Oxford in 1650. That was followed by one opening in London in 1652 and that led to coffee houses becoming ubiquitous in London. They were rapidly dubbed Penny Universities, (the entry fee, which included a cup of coffee, was one penny), and you could learn as much there as going to university. The coffee houses became the daily gathering places of merchants, scholars, professors, politicians, and businessmen. Kind of an analog social network! They became very important in the cultural development of London. For instance the Edward Lloyd coffee house established in 1688 later became Lloyds of London. Other coffee houses where men gathered to do business after daily closing of the Royal Exchange became the London Stock Exchange. Political events about 1683 caused the rapid spread of coffee houses to the rest of Europe.
Ok, enough well documented background, now we know when and where the first coffee houses were established, but what about the coffee table? It seems that the early coffee houses re-purposed existing tea tables. They were taller rectangular tables that matched the tall settees and furniture design of the era.
No known reference to a coffee table appears until Joseph Aronson, who wrote The Encyclopedia of Furniture, defines a coffee table in 1938 as, "Low wide table now used before a sofa or couch." It seems there aren’t any known examples of specifically designed coffee tables made before the mid to late 19th century, when the effects of the industrial revolution caused the mechanization of wood working and mass production takes hold. Various designs soon appear from the Arts & Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and the Bauhaus design movement of the 1900s.
It only took about 300 years for coffee to get its own table!