The Birth of London’s 1950s Bohemian Coffee Bars Documented in a Vintage 1959 Newsreel

I live in Seoul, by some mea­sures the most cof­fee shop-sat­u­rat­ed city in the world. But mod­ern cof­fee life here (which I recent­ly wrote about for the Los Ange­les Review of Books) only real­ly devel­oped after Star­bucks came to town around the turn of the 21st cen­tu­ry. We’ve now got more Star­bucks loca­tions per capi­ta than any­where else, and even so, the home­grown Kore­an chains well out­num­ber those under the green mer­maid. To under­stand how the cof­fee-house cul­ture we know across the world today took its shape, we have to look back to Lon­don in the late 1950s, specif­i­cal­ly as cap­tured in the Look at Life news­reel on the city’s bohemi­an cof­fee house boom just above.

“Cof­fee is big busi­ness,” says its nar­ra­tor, over a mon­tage of neon signs adver­tis­ing places like The Cof­fee House, Las Vegas Cof­fee Bar, Heav­en & HELL Cof­fee Lounge, and La Roca. “The cof­fee bar boom in Britain began in 1952, when the first espres­so machine arrived from Italy and was set up here, in Lon­don’s Soho.” The city’s many entre­pre­neurs vig­or­ous­ly seized the oppor­tu­ni­ty — maybe too vig­or­ous­ly, since “for every three cof­fee bars that opened up, two closed down.” They had­n’t planned on a few dif­fer­ent fac­tors, includ­ing over­head high enough that “if a char­ac­ter sits for half an hour over one cup of cof­fee, his share of the rent, heat, light, and ser­vice mount to the point where the man­age­ment is pay­ing him.”

They should’ve count­ed them­selves lucky that the likes of me and my gen­er­a­tion weren’t alive back then to, on a sim­i­lar­ly sin­gle cof­fee, spend half the day typ­ing on our lap­tops. But Lon­don’s mid­cen­tu­ry cof­fee hous­es soon learned to diver­si­fy, offer­ing Look at Life plenty–in its vivid col­ors and with its broad sense of humor–of life to look at: we see cof­fee bars hop­ping with live music and those who dance to it; juke­box cof­fee bars geared toward pom­padoured hip­sters; the film indus­try-beloved cof­fee bar in which T.S. Eliot once wrote the immor­tal line, “I have mea­sured out my life with cof­fee spoons”; an “invis­i­ble cof­fee house” behind whose false news­stand front “curi­ous char­ac­ters con­gre­gate”; the Moka, which William S. Bur­roughs once shut down with his cut-up tech­niques; and even the famous Le Macabre, dec­o­rat­ed with count­less skele­tal memen­tos mori.

The news­reel also finds its way to a cof­fee shop estab­lished by a news­pa­per where “uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents and oth­er assort­ed eggheads meet to put the world right — or more often left,” which reminds me of Guardian Cof­fee, a pop-up cof­fee house in a ship­ping-con­tain­er com­plex in Lon­don’s Shored­itch (in some sense, the Soho of the 21st cen­tu­ry) co-run by the epony­mous news­pa­per, which I vis­it­ed on my last trip to Eng­land. The Guardian Cof­fee exper­i­ment has since end­ed, but the Guardian has retained its inter­est in the bev­er­age itself, as evi­denced by recent arti­cles like Rosie Spinks’ “The Caf­feine Curse: Why Cof­fee Shops Have Always Sig­naled Urban Change.”

“As the cof­fee shop has become a byword for what every­one hates about urban change and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion – first come the cre­atives and their cof­fee shops, then the young pro­fes­sion­als, then the lux­u­ry high-ris­es and cor­po­rate chains that push out orig­i­nal res­i­dents – it’s worth ask­ing if that charge is fair,” Spinks writes. “As the func­tion of the cof­fee house in Lon­don has evolved over time, was its ear­ly iter­a­tion so rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent than the ones many of us type and sip away in today?” And what­ev­er form they take, cof­fee hous­es remain, as Look at Life calls them, “bright — or dim — fan­ci­ful, imag­i­na­tive new addi­tions to the British scene.” Or the Amer­i­can scene, or the Kore­an scene, or indeed the glob­al scene.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Curi­ous Sto­ry of London’s First Cof­fee­hous­es (1650–1675)

“The Vertue of the COFFEE Drink”: London’s First Cafe Cre­ates Ad for Cof­fee in the 1650s

J.S. Bach’s Com­ic Opera, “The Cof­fee Can­ta­ta,” Sings the Prais­es of the Great Stim­u­lat­ing Drink (1735)

The His­to­ry of Cof­fee and How It Trans­formed Our World

Black Cof­fee: Doc­u­men­tary Cov­ers the His­to­ry, Pol­i­tics & Eco­nom­ics of the “Most Wide­ly Tak­en Legal Drug”

How William S. Bur­roughs Used the Cut-Up Tech­nique to Shut Down London’s First Espres­so Bar (1972)

Hip­sters Order­ing Cof­fee

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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