Cafes are closely linked with the addiction for coffee and people have been enjoying it for over 500 years now. Cafes started as a meeting place where citizens gathered to carry on conversation over the brown cup of liquid. It was not a matter of common talk only; it soon became a haunt for intellectuals where debates took place as well as discourse on revolutions, technological innovations, books and enlightenment on various subjects that then ruled the world.
To trace back the history of cafes it is necessary that the first stop should be Vienna. There is a story that needs to be told here. The rapid spread of coffee houses and cafes started in 1683 when Armenian spy Diodato opened the first cafe in Vienna. He served at the Viennese Imperial Court and was accused of being a double spy, snooping for both the Hapsburg and the Serbians.
At the turn of the 20th century, Viennese coffee house culture grew exponentially in popularity. It became a get together ground for pacifists, intellectuals, journalists, writers and artists who were disillusioned by the senseless killings of the First World War. One of the well known cafes in Vienna is Phil at 10-12, 1060 Vienna. It is basically a bookshop cafe that serves delicious breakfast and brunch. Tourists revel in the cafes of Vienna which is a mix of the traditional and the modern in aesthetics and interior decoration.
While it is true that cafes have been largely responsible for shaping the cultural ethos of Vienna, contrary to popular belief, the city is not the cradle of the European coffee house. The earliest evidence of the existence of European coffee houses goes back to Venice in 1647 and the distinction of having the first coffee houses in the world rests on Mecca from way back in the 12th century.
The popularity of coffee houses is largely attributed not to the brew itself but on the interactions of the people who visited it. Cafes were traditional meeting places to exchange views, conduct debates and in general present a view of the world from the perception of thinkers who moulded public opinion.
There is an interesting angle to cafe culture. It is thought that addiction to caffeine brought the thinkers to cafes repeatedly and it is the effect of caffeine that really opened up their minds. A fascinating example is that of Balzac the great French writer who is known to have eaten dry coffee grounds to stimulate his creative writing talents. Unfortunately he died at the young age of 49!
Cafes in the early days were perceived to be a common ground for commoners and hence were looked upon suspiciously by the rulers of the country. It was thought that they helped create an environment of discontent what with the radical exchange of views between visitors there leading to social and political revolution. King Charles II of England tried to limit the spread of cafes but did not ultimately succeed.
Apart from this, cafes were also places to conduct business. In 18th century London, cafes began to draw specific clientele which gave rise to cafes being patronised exclusively by lawyers, book-sellers or other businessmen. Ultimately of course these cafes managed to break through the barriers of exclusivity and became a space where people of all professions could mingle freely.
A final word from Australia – people of Melbourne love their coffee and it is therefore no wonder that the museum in the city has a section devoted to cafe culture as part of the History and Technology collection. A large number of exhibits are from the historical Black Cat Cafe which closed in 2001. These include cutlery and crockery, posters, leaflets, photographs and artworks.
There can be no greater tribute to cafes and coffee house culture than this.