18th Century Starbucks?

If you Google the “Old Tontine Coffee House,” you’ll no doubt find the legendary location at Wall and Water Streets in New York City where the stock exchange is said to have been organized, and where later Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists hung out. It is believed to have opened in 1793.  But there was another well-known Tontine Coffee House that opened around the same time in (say it with me): Albany.

Coffee houses rose in Europe in the mid-1600s, and followed in the colonies soon after. They became popular gathering places for business men. A 1775 letter in the “New York Journal” decried Manhattan’s lack of a coffee house:

“Coffee houses have been universally deemed the most
convenient places of resort, because, at a small expense of time or
money, persons wanted may be found and spoke with, appointments may
be made, current news heard, and whatever it most concerns us to
know.”

Albany’s Tontine Coffee House was a prominent public gathering place on State Street. It probably opened around 1799, when stagecoach operator Ananias Platt came to Albany from Lansingburgh. He ran the coffee house, “where so many public meetings had been held and where were organized some of the city’s largest institutions,” for three years until 1801, when it was given over to a Matthew Gregory of Waterford. In the first decade of the 1800s, there was hardly an important meeting in Albany that didn’t take place at the Tontine. Once the steamboats started plying the Hudson, the Tontine was where you went to book passage to New York. Some years later, in 1816, leading citizens with familiar names like McIntyre, Bleecker, Van Schaick, and others met at the Tontine “to urge the subject of a canal upon the people and the Legislature . . . This seems to have been the first organized effort on the part of citizens to promote this scheme.” It was this effort that led to passage of the act that led to the creation of the Erie Canal. Political meetings abounded at the Tontine, and as much as Alexander Hamilton was associated with its namesake in New York, Aaron Burr was known to frequent the Albany Tontine, where he was nominated for governor. (It was in Albany that the Hamilton-Burr relationship came to a boil.) More than just a coffee house, the Tontine was also a first-class hotel, and one visitor in 1803 called it the only hotel worth naming in Albany. It remained the leading hotel until the Delavan opened in 1845.

So was there any relationship between the two Tontines? Was it the first coffee chain? There’s no evidence of that. Albany and New York were closely linked in those days, and it’s just as likely that someone who had visited New York, perhaps Platt, thought it would be a fine name for just such an establishment in the capital city. The name is fitting for a place where capital was raised and banks were formed. A tontine, according to Wikipedia, is “an investment scheme for raising capital, devised in
the 17th century and relatively widespread in the 18th and 19th. It
combines features of a group annuity and a lottery.
Each subscriber pays an agreed sum into the fund, and thereafter
receives an annuity. As members die, their shares devolve to the other
participants, and so the value of each annuity increases. On the death
of the last member, the scheme is wound up.”

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