Viennese Coffeehouse Culture in Europe

Cafe Sperl

Coffeehouses have been very culturally important throughout the century as places of social interaction; they are popular as they provide a place to assemble, study, debate, read, entertain, keep updated on politics or simply pass the time. The cultivation and trade of coffee first began in the Arab world and by the end of the sixteenth century, it has spread over Persia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey. The first coffeehouse was opened in Damascus in 1530 and Cairo soon followed. Coffeehouses soon became incredibly prevalent and vital as centre for the exchange of information, even becoming known as the ‘Schools of the Wise’.

History in Europe

Coffee first travelled to Europe in the 17th Century, just outside the Ottoman Empire, and quickly grew in popularity. In 1629, the first European coffeehouses were established in Venice transported the Ottomans. Initially, there was a large resistance to coffee in Venice, with some opponents including the local clergy declaring it the ‘bitter invention of Satan.’ The controversy surrounding coffee grew so much that Pope Clement VIII was required to intervene, eventually giving the drink Papal approval as he admired the taste after deciding to taste the beverage himself.Untitled 21 The legend of how coffee first reached Vienna goes as such: After the defeat of the Turks in the Battle of Vienna in 1683, there had been mysterious sacks of green beans found which was presumed to have been left behind by the fleeing Turks. These beans were given to the Polish King Jan III Sobieski, who then awarded it to one on his trusted officers, Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki. This officer used this hoard to set up shop in Vienna and thus the first Viennese coffeehouse was established and the coffeehouses went on become an important institute in shaping Viennese culture. The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig describes the Viennese Coffee House as, “actually a sort of democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee, where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering, to talk, write, play cards, receive post, and above all consume an unlimited number of newspapers and journals.”

Impact on the UK

The popularity of coffeehouses soon reached England and the first coffeehouse in England was set up in 1652 in Oxford by a Jewish man named Jacob and by 1675, there were more than 3,000 coffeehouses in England. Many of the original English coffeehouses still exist today, including the Queen’s Lane Coffee House set up in 1654. Coffee houses were seen as places where the social constraints of class and wealth were not as important and became associated with equality, although women were not initially allowed in English coffeehouses. Many great institutions were born out of the coffeehouses in the UK; the London Stock Exchange was an evolution of the listings of stocks and commodity prices in Jonathan’s Coffee-House in 1698. Lloyd’s of London insurance market, the Lloyd’s Register classification society, and other related businesses were formed by merchants and shipper in the venue provided by Lloyd’s Coffee House. Coffeehouses also provided the foundation for Prodigious Auction houses of Sotheby’s and Christie’s.


The importance of the coffee house culture in Europe to people of all classes is perhaps described best by the Viennese poet Peter Altenburg in his the poem titled ‘Kaffeehaus’ (translated into English):

When you are worried, have trouble of one sort or another -to the coffee house!

When she did not keep her appointment, for one reason or another – to the coffee house!

When your shoes are torn and dilapidated – coffee house!

When your income is four hundred crowns and you spend five hundred – coffee house!

You are a chair warmer in the office, while your ambition led you to to seek professional honors – coffee house!

You could not find a mate to suit you- coffee house!

You feel like committing suicide – coffee house!

You hate and despise human beings, and at the same time you cannot be happy without them – coffee house!

You compose a poem which you can not inflict upon friends that you meet in the street – coffee house!

When your coal scuttle is empty, and your gas ration exhausted – coffee house!

When you are locked out and haven’t the money to pay for unlocking the house door – coffee house!

When you acquire a new flame, and intend provoking the old one, you take the new one to the old one’s – coffee house!

When you feel like hiding, you dive into a – coffee house!

When you want to be seen in a new suit – coffee house!

When you can not get anything on trust anywhere else – coffee house!

By Astha Adhikari

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