The dawn of Cafe Society

Graham ScamblerI have for over 40 years written in cafes. In the early 1970s I scribbled in longhand, always having a notebook and biro about me somewhere. More recently, of course, I have carried a lightweight laptop around, several books chapters or papers on the go simultaneously. Still , however, I often link the writing of  a particular piece with a particular location. As I can consume less coffee – I had a cup in front of me almost permanently through to my late 50s, regarding it as an occupational given – I have substituted the odd bar for a café, especially if working late. So this webpage will be about cafes and the odd bar or two.

What better place to begin than Trondheim. For several years I have been a visiting speaker at the Norwegian health sociology workshop, usually in mid- or late April. My host, Aksel Tjora, now Professor of Sociology in Trondheim, is as enamoured of cafes as I am, hence our current project to co-edit a book onCafé Society. And naturally we had to discuss and commence this volume in Trondheim’s cafes (and bars). The photo here shows the two of us sitting out in the Trondheim sunshine getting the project underway.

In the course of my own research for the book I went beyond a time-bound fascination with Sartre and de Beauvoir and their acolytes working in Les Deux Maggots in Paris, or with writers, artists and would-be revolutionaries talking and conspiring in Vienna’s famous and still-luxurious coffee houses (both of which I have sampled in my time). Instead, I turned to London’s earliest coffee drinkers. So these few lines give a context to the city in which my coffee consumption has been greatest by far.

Coffee was entirely unknown before the middle of the 15th century, when it was absorbed initially into the drinking habits of people in the Red Sea basin, infiltrating the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. It was in the course of the 16th century that it came to Britain. The first English coffeehouse opened in Oxford in 1650. In 1652 an Armenian, or maybe Greek, immigrant from Smyrna, Pasqua Rosee, financed by his merchant employer Daniel Edwards, set up an establishment in St Michael’s Alley at Cornhill. The habit of coffee drinking and the emergence of the coffeehouse have fascinated Western historians ever since, not least because of their association with a civil society beyond monarchical reach. The period from the end of the 17th century through the ‘long’ 18th century saw the coffeehouse come to play a significant political role as a forum of debate and dissent independent of Parliament (see my blog on ‘Habermas, civil society and the public sphere’).

By the start of the 19th century, concluding a longstanding rivalry, tea had been usurped by coffee. Coffee had even displaced ale as the national drink. Early in the 19th century, however, the coffeehouse underwent a protracted period of class-based retrenchment, from which it only re-emerged – as coffee prices fell – with the sponsorship of Arab, Turk, Greek, Sicilian and other émigrés in the course of the second half of the 19th century. London’s Soho, a magnet for émigrés, proved a key location. Although there were perhaps as many as 1,400 coffeehouses in the London area by the end of the 19th century, they had not regained their earlier political salience; the bourgeois coffeehouses had largely given way to the more lowly coffee room.

The 20th century may have set off inauspiciously for the coffeehouse but following the success of milk bars from the 1930s, the coffee bar, seen initially as something of a ‘low-life’ resource, proved extremely popular in the 1950s. In 1945 Gaggia adapted the espresso machine to create a high pressure extraction that produced a thick level of crema; and by 1946 the cappuccino – christened for its resemblance to the colour of the robes worn by the capuchin monks – had been delivered: the unique selling point of the classic café had arrived. Coffee bars were rife in London’s Soho by the mid-1950s, the first, a classic Formica café called The Mocha at 29 Frith Street, being opened by Gina Lollabrigida in 1953. Rippling rapidly out of Soho, these cafes became magnets for political activists, jazz players, nouveau existentialists (although delivering ‘The Outsiders’ rather than ‘Ethics of Ambiguity’ or ‘Being and Nothingness’) and beatnik babyboomers, anticipating and feeding the cultural explosion of the 1960s.

The 1970s witnessed a rise in unemployment as oil prices quadrupled and Britain’s manufacturing base halved, signalling a recession that left only a handful of diehard café groups untroubled: the Lyons’ Wimpy Bars (established in 1954) and the Golden Eggs (set up by Reggie Kray and others in the early 1960s). This proved a significant juncture, a transition from Fordist, industrial welfare-statist capitalism to post-Fordist, post-industrial, post-welfare-statist capitalism. By the onset of the Thatcherite 1980s cafes were struggling again, further challenged by a revitalised publ culture, burger conglomerates and a mushrooming of sandwich bars.

Meanwhile things were stirring in the USA and a ‘speciality coffee industry’ was beginning to flex its corporate muscle. In the new consumerist landscape American cafes encouraged people to ‘hang out’, to idle away the afternoon, and to do so without paying very much. Surely only the Americans could market a ’13-shot venti soy hazlenut vanilla cinnamon white mocha with extra white mocha and caramel’? Starbucks was founded in 1971, and its time had now come.  But the story of Starbucks is for another occasion.

This was originally posted on Graham Scambler’s blog. You can follow his ongoing Cafe Society project here

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