The following link, derived from the
Lowell City Directory, is a list of coffee houses by year
We'd welcome any information
about coffee houses in Lowell (email).
The Coffee House
It’s only a claim,
but coffee houses, whether in Lowell or anywhere else in the world, are of Greek
origin. For example, the British version of the coffee house was introduced into
Great Britain in 1652 by Konopios, a Cretan.
Because of the
important role that coffee houses played in their social life, the first Greek
immigrants to America brought the coffee house with
them. In Lowell, Massachusetts, Greek immigrants established coffee houses
around Market Street, in the Acre section, as early as the 1890’s. These first
Greek immigrants were young men, mostly in their teens and early twenties,
finding easy work in the mills of Lowell. As this male Greek settlement grew,
more coffee houses were opened, to number over twenty‑eight by 1920. Some of
those still remembered are the Minerva, Messinia," Smyrna, and Arcadia Coffee Houses. Greeks congregated at these places and others like them, and
talked far into the night. Conversation is the great love of Greeks and their
talk ranged from the trivial events at work to world politics, from the life
they would lead when they returned to Greece to their success in America.
houses were inexpensive to operate and patronize. The Hellenes
provided their coffee houses with plenty of tables and chairs, and served a
great deal of Turkish coffee
and baklava. As xxx describes it, "In the barren rooms of tables and chairs with
basil plants lining the window sills and calendars of pretty women and pictures
of grizzled Greek patriots on the wall, the men sipped Turkish coffee, read
Greek newspapers, smoked the many‑tu nargile, played cards, and talked for
hours. For amusement, the customers might dance, sing village songs, and listen
to a bouzouki, or mandolin.
proprietors were able to furnish more professional entertainment for their
patrons. This was certainly true of Lowell where, on Market Street, a long line
of these coffee houses catered to the "immigrant throngs". Traveling players of
the shadow plays (Karagiorgi), musicians, dancers, and sometimes strong men
traveled the circuit of coffee houses, and earned their wages largely in tips.
With luck, one could find a female entertainer. A Washington Post article in
1904, for example, describes Helena Antonopoulos, from Constantinople, sang how
four nights a week at one such coffee house in Lowell.
For the Greek
immigrants, the coffee house was both their home and their only social life. To
the men who worked long hours in the sweltering mills, the coffee house was
their comfort, protection, and reassurance. After the long hours in the mills,
"the men washed themselves and put on their Sunday suits for their visit to the
coffee house. It was important to them to dress well, a sign of respectability."
Besides they gave
for opportunity of feeling more at home in their new environment. All Greek men
were welcome and there were few pressures to buy anything. Consequently, the
coffee houses were never without patrons. Here, for the price of a cup of thick
Greek coffee, men (and men only) could sit at a small table smoking, reading his
paper, or talking politics and reminiscing with friends for as long as he
wished. Charles Caldwell Dobie in his book, San Francisco. A Pageant.
New York. 1936,
writes that "the Greek males do not wander aimlessly about the streets in the
fashion of their western brothers". The coffee houses were therefore
instrumental in keeping the Greeks together in one area.
The coffee house
served not only an informal social purpose but also wider community functions.
To a large degree, the coffee house helped incorporate the immigrants into the
larger community. Even for those who could not speak English, one could go to a
coffee house and inquire about friends, be told about jobs, and receive advice
about personal troubles. Sometimes American friends would come and socialize, or
play cards with their Greek friends. City authorities could pass out information
or leave posters on the wall. Candidates for political office would drop in and
ask for votes. In turn, the Greeks might ask their own favors of these
coffeehouse there was at least one better educated man who had an altruistic
interest in the younger men. Sometimes, he appeared in court to extricate the
men from disturbance-of-the-peace charges and brought them back to the coffee
house to face its judgment. In the early years, there were frequent arrests,
often resulting from exuberant behavior.
Greeks have always respected the law
and these pioneers worked hard to present a more accurate image of their
community. But as Jones concluded: "It was an impossible task there were
thousands of exuberant …”(young men).” "tempers exploded over cards, old country
feuds, and politics”. “Wild Greeks" the Americans called them”. Many people
unsavory image of these coffee houses. To Americans, and gradually for many
Greeks also, the coffeehouse became the symbol of all that was offensive about
Greeks. It was a strange institution, easy to misunderstand…" Especially in the
early years, it was easy for outsiders to fear walking by the bands of exuberant
young Greeks who spilled out into the streets.
As women came to
Lowell in large numbers after 1905 families were formed and the young male
immigrants became older. The earlier coffee houses began to lose their steady
customers. Greeks began to acquire homes for their families and spent more time
on family things. Their search for better homes caused them to settle more
widely in the Lowell area, and beyond. Most of those who stayed on in the Acre
were forcibly removed with the urban renewal of that neighborhood in the late
130s. Soon after, the young men, often the children of the immigrants, left to
fight their country’s war in the 1940's. The coffee houses thereafter were
quieter places where older men looked out at the empty streets and thought their
thoughts. Now an occasional coffee house opens to largely serve the needs of
Greeks who have immigrated in dwindling numbers in more recent years.
Copyright © by Lowell
Hellenic Heritage Association. All rights reserved.