A cup of colonial coffee


Coffee and chocolate pots line the mantel in the R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse in Colonial Williamsburg.


Wait on the porch for an invitation inside the coffeehouse for a bit of refreshment and education.

Research can be so wearing. So many questions. So many notes. Long days. Oh the tedium.

Except when you’re doing that research in Colonial Williamsburg.

I returned from three days in the 18th Century with plenty of inspiration for the novel I’ll soon complete. I grilled the mantua maker as she tried together bits of thread into colorful trim for a lady’s gown.  I listened with with great care when the printer explained his trade and the furniture maker hers. I took plenty of pictures of gowns and printing presses and a lathe and hammers. When a lady dressed elegantly appeared, I inquired about her undergarments. Rather than walk away in a huff at such impertinence she explained how her panniers were constructed.


While we sipped, Mr. Nichols, a local government official and raconteur, regaled us with tales of Colonial Williamsburg life.

So much research can make one weary. When we chanced upon R. Charlton’s Coffeehouse at the Capitol end of Duke of Gloucester Street, I had to go in. I remember when a Victorian house resided at this location. A pretty building but out of character, it has been moved to the other end of DOG Street.

The new coffeehouse is unlike the other recreated buildings in CW. In the other shops I mentioned, visitors stop in to take a look and ask questions of the men and women working inside. And in most cases, these experts are working, creating items that will be used in exhibitions around town.


Don’t want to rub elbows with the hoi-polloi? There are two elegantly appointed rooms at your disposal. This is the smaller one.

In Charlton’s, visitors gather on the porch and are invited inside to have a seat at one of the tables. The serving staff offers everyone a demitasse-sized taste of coffee, tea and chocolate. There’s milk and sugar on the table but the ladies will warn that the milk will make the drinks cold and the sugar will make it crunchy. One little kid had put milk in his cup of chocolate and the serving woman remarked that he was drinking milk with chocolate. (Judging from the frown on another little girl, the chocolate must have been bitter.)


This is the larger one. (Although that wallpaper will have to go, sir.)

While we sipped, Robert Carter Nichols, an attorney from town regaled us with tales of life and business in 18th Century Williamsburg. He answered questions and dropped names, such as Thomas Jefferson who read the law here as a young man.

Drinking coffee was a patriotic act — tea was British and had led to some unpleasantness in the colonies. Certainly, you remember…

This coffeehouse, so close to the Capitol, attracted great men and the people who has business with them. Besides the main room, there were two elegantly appointed back rooms that could be rented for private suppers or other gatherings. When Mrs. Washington came to see her Burgess husband, George, she would have dined with him in one of these lovely rooms.

The visit was refreshing: a little coffee to revive the spirits and stories of colonial days to fire the imagination.

Ⓒ Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman