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A Little New Orleans Coffee History


Suzanne Stone, creator of our Fascinatin’ Women of New Orleans Tour, has compiled for us a little information about New Orleans’ coffee history. Her research was inspired by the Lonsdale mansion, which we visit daily on our Garden District walking tour.

Henry Londsale and Rose Nicaud – The Coffee Connection

Henry Lonsdale, born in Brooklyn of English parents, was working on the New Orleans docks as a teenager. He noticed that many packages were arriving damaged and, having received a sample of jute fiber from his parents, developed burlap packaging.  He made a fortune and a name as the “jute-sack baron.” But Henry lost the fortune in the Panic of 1837. He soon made another fortune, in coffee importing, and in 1857 moved into an Italianate mansion designed by architect Henry Howard (which, along with many other homes, can be seen on our Garden District tour).  Soon thereafter, he went broke again, and all trace of him is lost to New Orleans history.

It is believed that Lonsdale added chicory to his coffee grounds in order to stretch the supply, and some say Lonsdale introduced the use of chicory in New Orleans. If either if these is true, it means that chicory was not first used during the Union naval blockade during the Civil War. At that time, it is likely that chicory replaced or largely replaced coffee.

Chicory was first roasted and used in coffee in Holland around 1750. Soon thereafter chicory was introduced as a coffee supplement in France (where it was already used as a medicine). In 1806 Napoleon, in an attempt to make France completely self sufficient, eliminated coffee imports, and the French drank chicory as a substitute. After a few years, the French reverted to blending chicory with their coffee. Meanwhile, James Bowdoin, the governor of Massachusetts, first introduced it to the United States in 1785. The British tea tax caused not only the Boston Tea Party in 1773, but the desire for English colonists in the northern colonies to search for a tea substitute. They turned to coffee and to chicory.

During this same time, the French had large coffee plantations in San Dominguez, some of which was imported into New Orleans. By 1840, around the time Lonsdale was working on the docks, the port of New Orleans was the second largest importer of coffee in the United States. And, today approximately one-third of all coffee imported to North America lands first in New Orleans, where a dozen or so coffee roasters prepare products for 20 national and local brands. But not all the coffee arriving here goes on for export elsewhere. Even in the 1850s, city directories list more than 500 coffeehouses.

The first of these was established by a former slave, Rose Nicaud. Given the opportunity to work for herself on Sundays, she saw that people wanted coffee. So she became a vendor selling coffee that was, according to one customer, “like the benediction that follows after prayer.” With her earnings she eventually opened the first coffee stall in the French Market (you can learn more about Nicaud and other women who helped establish New Orleans on a private Fascinatin’ Women tour).

We don’t know if Nicaud’s coffee contained chicory, but according to Sharran Brown, in “The Truth About Chicory,” the history of the plants goes back to ancient Egypt. The Eber Papyrus, dating from 4000 BCE is the oldest written document to refer to chicory. “Chicory” could possibly come from the Egyptian word Ctchorium. It has been used in the Mediterranean area, India, and in parts of Southeast Asia and South Africa.

A woody herb of the dandelion family, common as a forage crop for livestock, some varieties of chicory are cultivated for salad greens (endive) and some for the roots, which are baked, roasted, and ground before being used as an additive to or substitute for coffee.

There are reasons – other than economics – for coffee to be blended with chicory. In fact, Egyptians cultivated chicory seeds as a digestive aid. We now know that chicory root increases the flow of bile, which supports digestion.  Around 1970, it was found that the root contains up to 20% inulin, a source of soluble dietary fiber that feeds digestive flora in the intestines. Inulin has the power to reduce the body’s acidity and can be helpful to prevent digestive problems like acid reflux andindigestion. Chicory is well known for its toxicity to internal parasites, such as worms, which is why it is popular as forage. It may also protect against bacteria found around the teeth.

However, Dr. Andrew Weil warns that chicory can trigger reactions in people who are allergic to ragweed pollen or sensitive to related plants, including chrysanthemums, marigolds, and daisies.