April 12, 2009, is the 300th birthday of the founding of the original Tatler by Richard Steele, (pictured) and to mark the occasion, The Oxford Dictionary of Biography is devoting this week's spot to Steele and his fellow essayist, Joseph Addison.
Today The Tatler, named after Steele's original, and published since 1901, calls itself "Britain's most sophisticated magazine," a soubriquet Steele would have applauded. The descendant of his publication would have also earned itself his approval by billing itself as a "vibrant mix of fashion, beauty and most glamorous celebrities," that presents "the social comment of the day with wit, style and irreverence."
The original idea was to publish the news and gossip running around the coffee and chocolate houses of the time, so Steele planted spies in the most fashionable sipping spots. Whites' Chocolate House in St. James's Street was his source for "all accounts of gallantry, pleasure and entertainment"- a fancy way of saying that was where he got all the inside gen on the gallivanting royals. Literary gossip (and Steele was the first dramatic critic) was picked up at Will's Coffee House in Bow Street, where Dryden once hogged the heat, bagging the chair closest to the fire in winter, and on the balcony in summer. The Tatler was so influential that when Addison began to frequent Button's Coffee House in Russell Street instead, Will's establishment waned and died.
Collecting antiques was all the rage, and fodder for commentary on the topic was garnered at the Grecian Coffee House in Devereux Court, described in Tatler's pages as the place where men of learning gathered. Such luminaries of science as Newton, Halley, and Sloane were loyal patrons -- and this despite the fact that the proprietor openly preferred "gentlemen of the law" to literary lights, scientists or medics.
Political news emanated from St. James's Coffee House, where many Tatler stories (and one set of Steele's love letters) were written. It was a Whig establishment - no Tory would allow himself to be seen there - which gives a clue to the politics of such patrons as Garrick, Reynolds, and Goldsmith.
The first paparazzi, perhaps?