The Art of Café Society

Café society was the name given to the “Beautiful People” and “Bright Young Things” who gathered in fashionable cafes in New York, Paris, and London beginning in the 1890s.

But the history of cafes goes back much farther.

During the middle ages, coffeehouses spread across the Ottoman Empire, starting in what is now Saudi Arabia, then opening in Syria, Egypt, and Istanbul.

Describing the Persian coffeehouse scene in the 17th-century, French traveler Jean Chardin wrote:

People engage in conversation, for it is there that news is communicated and where those interested in politics criticize the government in all freedom and without being fearful since the government does not heed what the people say.

Chardin noted that games like chess and checkers were played, along with poets and preachers telling stories in verse or as moral lessons.

Trade with the Ottoman Empire brought coffeehouses to Europe via the Republic of Venice in around 1629, with the first coffeehouse in England opening in Oxford in 1652.

Grand Café, Oxford. Credit Kake, flickr
Grand Café, Oxford. Credit Kake, flickr

Here, at what is now the Grand Café in Oxford, 17th-century luminaries gathered to discuss a whole range of ideas based on reason—what we now refer to as the Enlightenment.

Whether you visit alone to think and contemplate, or to join friends and chat about life, work, and the ways of the world, the next time you settle in at Starbucks or Costa Coffee or a host of other modern cafés, take a moment to pause and reflect on what these places actually represent.

They are where our modern ideas of liberty, progress, tolerance, and fraternity were born.

El Cafe by Jose Jimenez y Aranda
El Cafe by Jose Jimenez y Aranda
Garden Cafe on the River Elbe by Max Liebermann - circa 1922
Garden Cafe on the River Elbe by Max Liebermann – circa 1922
In Café Bauer by Lesser Ury, 1895
In Café Bauer by Lesser Ury, 1895
Terrace Scene-Musée Lorrain by Léon Voirin (1833-1887)
Terrace Scene-Musée Lorrain by Léon Voirin (1833-1887)
In Front of the Cafe by Lesser Ury - circa 1920-1929
In Front of the Cafe by Lesser Ury – circa 1920-1929
Cafe de la Paix, Paris by Constantin Alexeevich Korovin
Cafe de la Paix, Paris by Constantin Alexeevich Korovin
In the Cafe by Pyotr Nilus - 1901
In the Cafe by Pyotr Nilus – 1901
Cafe de Paris by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida - 1885
Cafe de Paris by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida – 1885
Cafe along a River by Luigi Loir
Cafe along a River by Luigi Loir
La Guinguette, an outdoor cafe in Montmartre by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
La Guinguette, an outdoor cafe in Montmartre by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Outdoor Cafe on Staufenplatz by Heinrich Hermanns
Outdoor Cafe on Staufenplatz by Heinrich Hermanns
Paris. Cafe de la Paix by Constantin Alexeevich Korovin - 1906
Paris. Cafe de la Paix by Constantin Alexeevich Korovin – 1906
The terrace of the café of the glacier, place Stanislas in Nancy by Léon Joseph Voirin (1833-1887)
The terrace of the café of the glacier, place Stanislas in Nancy by Léon Joseph Voirin (1833-1887)
The Cafe on the terrace at St Ile de Yeu by Henri Lebasque - circa 1919
The Cafe on the terrace at St Ile de Yeu by Henri Lebasque – circa 1919
Woman in a Cafe by Edgar Degas - circa 1877
Woman in a Cafe by Edgar Degas – circa 1877
Women on a Cafe Terrace in the Evening by Edgar Degas - 1877
Women on a Cafe Terrace in the Evening by Edgar Degas – 1877
At the Cafe by Felix Vallotton - 1909
At the Cafe by Felix Vallotton – 1909
Cafe Maxim, Paris by Jean-Louis Forain
Cafe Maxim, Paris by Jean-Louis Forain
Night Cafe by Axel Torneman - circa 1905-1906
Night Cafe by Axel Torneman – circa 1905-1906
El Cafe de Montmartre by Santiago Rusiñol Prats - 1890
El Cafe de Montmartre by Santiago Rusiñol Prats – 1890
Conversation at the Cafe by Giovanni Boldini - 1877-1878
Conversation at the Cafe by Giovanni Boldini – 1877-1878
At the Cafe by Frederick Childe Hassam - 1887-1889
At the Cafe by Frederick Childe Hassam – 1887-1889
Hailing a Cab outside the Cafe Americain by Jean-Georges Béraud - circa 1890
Hailing a Cab outside the Cafe Americain by Jean-Georges Béraud – circa 1890
The Boulevards, Evening in Front of the Cafe Napolitain by Jean-Georges Béraud
The Boulevards, Evening in Front of the Cafe Napolitain by Jean-Georges Béraud
Street Corner on Karl Johan, Grand Cafe by Edvard Munch - 1883
Street Corner on Karl Johan, Grand Cafe by Edvard Munch – 1883
Young Woman in a Cafe by Jean-François Raffaëlli
Young Woman in a Cafe by Jean-François Raffaëlli
A Parisian Cafe by Ilia Efimovich Repin - 1875
A Parisian Cafe by Ilia Efimovich Repin – 1875
At the Cafe by Pierre Auguste Renoir - 1877
At the Cafe by Pierre Auguste Renoir – 1877
Cafe en la terraza by Julio Vila Prades
Cafe en la terraza by Julio Vila Prades
The Terrace Cafe, Mar del Plata, Argentina by Eugenio Alvarez Dumont - 1912
The Terrace Cafe, Mar del Plata, Argentina by Eugenio Alvarez Dumont – 1912
Parisian Cafe by Constantin Alexeevich Korovin
Parisian Cafe by Constantin Alexeevich Korovin
Paris Cafe by Alfred Henry Maurer - circa 1904
Paris Cafe by Alfred Henry Maurer – circa 1904
Cafe-Concert by Édouard Manet - 1878
Cafe-Concert by Édouard Manet – 1878
Moulin de la Galette by Isaac Israëls, 1906
Moulin de la Galette by Isaac Israëls, 1906
The Cafe by Pierre Auguste Renoir - circa 1874-1877
The Cafe by Pierre Auguste Renoir – circa 1874-1877
At the Cafe by Jean-Louis Forain - circa 1879
At the Cafe by Jean-Louis Forain – circa 1879
Cafe sur la Port by Henri Lebasque
Cafe sur la Port by Henri Lebasque
In a Cafe by Gustave Caillebotte - 1880
In a Cafe by Gustave Caillebotte – 1880
Cafe de la Paix by Richard Edward Miller - circa 1905
Cafe de la Paix by Richard Edward Miller – circa 1905
A Parisian Cafe by Edouaro Leon Garrido - 1886
A Parisian Cafe by Edouaro Leon Garrido – 1886
In the cafe by Gotthardt Kuehl, 1915
In the cafe by Gotthardt Kuehl, 1915
An Elegant Lady in Black in a Cafe by Pompeo Mariani
An Elegant Lady in Black in a Cafe by Pompeo Mariani
Cafe in Venice by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez
Cafe in Venice by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez
Cafe De Paris by Richard Edward Miller
Cafe De Paris by Richard Edward Miller
The Cafe Terrace on the Place de Forum, Arles, At Night by Vincent van Gogh - 1888
The Cafe Terrace on the Place de Forum, Arles, At Night by Vincent van Gogh – 1888
In the Cafe by Isaac Israels - circa 1905
In the Cafe by Isaac Israels – circa 1905
Terrasse De Cafe by Delphin Enjolras
Terrasse De Cafe by Delphin Enjolras
Night Cafe by Sergei Arsenevich Vinogradov - 1901
Night Cafe by Sergei Arsenevich Vinogradov – 1901
Cafe by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin - 1907
Cafe by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin – 1907
The Cafe Royal, London by Sir William Orpen, R.A., R.H.A. - 1912
The Cafe Royal, London by Sir William Orpen, R.A., R.H.A. – 1912
Cafe de Paris by Jean-Georges Béraud - circa 1900
Cafe de Paris by Jean-Georges Béraud – circa 1900
At the Cafe by Robert Koehler - circa 1887
At the Cafe by Robert Koehler – circa 1887
The Night Cafe by Luigi Loir
The Night Cafe by Luigi Loir
In A Paris Cafe by Boris Grigoriev, 1914
In A Paris Cafe by Boris Grigoriev, 1914
Café Bauer by Leo Lesser Ury, 1889
Café Bauer by Leo Lesser Ury, 1889
Cafe by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1907
Cafe by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1907

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