The following, 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.
These coffee 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.
Often the 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 politicians.
In each 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 held an 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.
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Copyright © 2001 by Lowell Hellenic Heritage Association. All rights reserved.
Revised: 09 Mar 2009 11:21:31 -0500