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The History of the ‘Café Society’ | Gallery
Photo Roy Botterell / Corbis View the gallery

The History of the ‘Café Society’ | Gallery

Lingering over coffee in the company of others is a ritual that never loses its appeal. The global 'Café society' keeps it timeless glamour.

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In 1971, Starbucks was just a single bar in Seattle’s market plaza. Ten years later, the one location had become five, and the company began importing their own blends of coffee. The legend surrounding the birth of Starbucks tells of Howard Schulz, one of the company’s buyers, making a trip to Italy in 1983, and being astounded to learn that the Country had more than 200,000 cafés selling espresso coffee and that Milan, a city the size of Philadelphia, had more than 1,500. Why couldn’t it be the same in the United States? Now quoted on the stock exchange, Starbucks has become, to all effects, a multi-national corporation.

What Schulz hadn’t been able to foresee was that, along with the fortuitous economic boom that Starbucks was lucky enough to benefit from, the company and brand would change the way Americans enjoyed their coffee ritual and the roles that cafés – would play in daily life. The invasion was a peaceful, widespread and fast: younger Americans had re-discovered one of the pleasant pastimes that their grandparents’ had enjoyed –taking your time while drinking coffee. A new kind of American ‘Café Society’ was born.

And so it’s partly the merit of Schulz if in Europe, the homeland of historic cafés, the ritual of
sitting at a table in a nice, welcoming café – either alone or in company – is becoming, once again, a social habit. Schulz has succeeded in the rather challenging goal of creating the image of coffee in the United States as a young, trendy drink that’s also connected to the alluring culture of faraway Europe, and transforming his cafés into “cultural circles” where customers can spend all the time they wish, just reading, writing – whether by hand, like many writers have done, from Ernest Hemingway to J.K. Rowling – or on a keyboard. They can plug in their PCs and use the free wi-fi for as long as they like, all for the price of a tea, a coffee, a cup of hot chocolate or a pastry.

In the wake of this trend launched by Schultz, and to prepare himself for his arrival on the “old” continent –in Paris of 1997 – Caffè Scienza began to become popular as an initiative that organizes informal conferences and discussions in cafés where experts from every branch of science can discuss ideas – from Darwinism and DNA to the recent discovery of a Supernova. In Italy, the legendary Caffé San Marco in Trieste became a reference point for these encounters.

Rome, in the meantime, was hardly sitting around and watching. The city’s own memories of cultivated salons found a new home in this growing trend and the Eternal City began to rejuvenate itself with all kinds of Caffè Letterario. The Art Studio Cafè is open to debates, lectures, exhibitions, classes in mosaic, ceramics and much more. The Caffè Fandango includes a micro-cinema that can seat ten people, while Milan’s Caffetteria degli Atellani, which appears as a giant glass cube surrounded by a garden, is a popular place for book readings and exhibitions of all kinds and also features a bookshop and DVD shop.

Of course, Europe has a long history of places where people would come to drink coffee and discuss “themes” – from philosophy to theatre, religion to science – and these are the original literary cafés. From Florian in Venezia to the Caffè Greco in Roma, the Giubbe Rosse in Florence and the Caffè Miani in Milan, where regular customers included Verdi, Puccini and Toscanini. And of course, there’s Vienna’s Café Sacher, home of the legendary cake, Centrál Kávéház in Budapest, or Queen's Lane Coffee House in Oxford and London «where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers», as stated by King Charles II: «Seats of English liberty […] where you have the right to read all the papers for and against the government», according to the French writer Antoine François Prévost.
And who could ignore Paris’s oldest literary café Procope, or the city’s iconic Cafè Flore or the legendary Les Deux Magots, on the corner of Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés: all beloved places for 20th Century artists and intellectuals like Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

But in the first half of the 20th Century, it wasn’t just highbrow culture that was discussed in New York or European capital cities. Cafés were a magnet for bohemians with their disorderly lives, bourgeois women who were in search of adventure and models who’d appear in sophisticated clothes and jewels, like those featured in the photos by Cecil Beaton for Vogue. These were the cafés for the sophisticated avant-garde culture made up of ‘beautiful people’ and ‘bright young things’, a generation that would become immortalized with the name ‘Café Society’, which was a term coined by the columnist for the New York American, Maury Paul, whose writings inspired the 1938 film by Paramount Pictures, Cafe Society.

In the U.S, the rise of ‘Cafe Society’ coincided with the end of Prohibition (December, 1933) and the growing popularity of photojournalism. All of a sudden, photographers were taking pictures of everything, everywhere – as long as there was someone famous in the shot. Millionaires, starlets, sports stars, and of course, the luminaries of ‘Café Society’.

And it was in 1950 when the true ‘Café Society’ disembarked in Rome, in the now-legendary via Veneto, and this epicentre of celebrity culture was captured by Fellini in La Dolce Vita, recounting an era that lasted a decade, more or less. With the onset of the Sixties and the popularity of air travel for a certain cachet of customer, what was once a locally concentrated ‘Café Society’ soon become known as the ‘Jet Set’. But that’s another story

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