Thursday, December 9, 2010

Coffee and Spectacle

One of the popular sights for those visiting London was Don Saltero's coffeehouse in Chelsea.  Coffeehouses themselves weren't uncommon, they were popular local hangout where you got the local news and gossip.  Much like today's local pubs or internet social networks, coffeehouses tended to be part of the daily routine.  What set Don Saltero's apart from others was it was both a coffeehouse and museum of curiosities.


Wunderkammer or cabinets of curiosity were popular spectacles for people in the renaissance onward.  For those with enough money to house these collections, wunderkammers could be a time consuming and expensive hobby.  Beside cabinets, whole rooms were dedicated to the marvelous.  What sort of things would you find in these cabinets?  Well it wasn't Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum, curiosity cabinets contained many natural objects of beauty.  Shells, rocks, taxidermy, and if you were especially lucky, unicorn narwhal horns.  Many beautiful depictions of these collections can be found in museums.

These were the sort of objects you would find at Don Saltero's although the uniqueness of these being at a coffee house made the place a bit of a tourist trap albeit a good one.  While many 18th century wunderkammers now served as places of study Don Saltero, or James Salter, brought articles of curiosity to the masses for the price of a cup of coffee. 

Salter began as a humble barber in the late 17th century.  He had amassed a decent collection of articles from his old employer, Sir Hans Sloane, the founder of the British Museum.  Whatever Sloane didn't care for he would hand off to the grateful Salter.  When Salter founded the coffeehouse in 1695 customers were wowed by the rejected articles.  Salter even published catalogs of his collection.  Don Saltero's became such a famous attraction of London that when Salter died in 1768 his daughter took over running the coffeehouse museum.  However, at her death there was no one to continue the care of the business so in 1799 the marvelous collection had to be sold.

6 comments:

Rebecca said...

Interesting...its sad that the collection had to be sold after his daughters death though.

Comtesse Olympe de la Tour D'Auvergne said...

There is a "curiosity cabinet room" at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. They have pictures of it on their website even, it's one of my favorite places to visit when I'm there.

Fabulastic said...

I always wanted to do a wunderkrammer! But unfortunately we now live in a world without wonder...

Lady Webster said...

Heather, I love your blog because everyday I learn something new, either from your entry or a response to it. Thanks for doing what you do!

Miss Honnete said...

And if you were especially lucky, you could find unicorn horns. LOL

Heather Carroll said...

Thank you everyone, I'm glad you enjoyed it!