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Early Parisian Coffee Houses - 1922

Early Parisian Coffee Houses - 1922

Paris is celebrated above all the capitals of Europe for its cafes, and the beverage which gives its name to these establishments seems to have been known earlier in France than in any other European country.

Coffee was introduced into central Europe in 1683, the year of the battle of Vienna; and from the Austrian capital, the use of coffee spread rapidly to all parts of Germany.

Parisians, however, pride themselves on having known coffee fourteen years earlier than the Viennese. It is said, indeed, that an enterprising Levantine started a coffee-house at Paris in the very middle of the seventeenth century, and not later than the year 1650.

The name of the stimulating beverage that he offered for sale was, as he wrote it, cahoue. But the unhappy man had not taken the necessary steps for getting his new importation spoken of beforehand in good society; and, no one knowing what to make of the strange liquor he wished to dispense—hot, black, and bitter— the founder of the first coffee-house or café became bankrupt.

View of a Cafe on the Boulevard Montmartre near the entrance of Théâtre des Variétés

View of a Cafe on the Boulevard Montmartre near the entrance of Théâtre des Variétés

The introduction of coffee into Paris by Thévenot in 1657 — How Soilman Aga established the custom of coffee drinking at the court of Louis XIV — Opening the first coffee houses — How the French adaptation of the Oriental coffee house first appeared in the real French cafe of François Procope — The important part played by the coffee houses in the development of French literature and the stage — Their association with the Revolution and the founding of the Republic — Quaint customs and patrons — Historic Parisian cafes.

If we are to accept the authority of Jean La Roque, "before the year 1669, coffee had scarcely been seen in Paris, except at M. Thévenot's and at the homes of some of his friends. Nor had it been heard of except in the writings of travelers."

As noted in his book, Jean de Thévenot brought coffee into Paris in 1657. One account says that a decoction, supposed to have been coffee, was sold by a Levantine in the Petit Chatelet under the name of cohove or cahoue during the reign of Louis XIII; but this lacks confirmation. Louis XIV is said to have been served with coffee for the first time in 1664.

Soon after the arrival, in July 1669, of the Turkish ambassador, Soliman Aga, it became noised abroad that he had brought with him for his own use, and that of his retinue, great quantities of coffee. He "treated several persons with it, both in the court and the city." At length "many accustomed themselves to it with sugar, and others who found benefit by it could not leave it off."

Within six months, all Paris was talking of the sumptuous coffee functions of the ambassador from Mohammed IV to the court of Louis XIV.

While it is recorded that coffee made slow progress with the court of Louis XIV, the next king, Louis XV, to please his mistress, Mme. du Barry, gave it a tremendous vogue. It is related that he spent $15,000 a year for coffee for his daughters.

Coffee Was First Sold and Served Publicly in the Fair of St. Germain

Coffee Was First Sold and Served Publicly in the Fair of St. Germain

Meanwhile, in 1672, one Pascal, an Armenian, first sold coffee publicly in Paris.  Pascal, who, according to one account, was brought to Paris by the Turkish ambassador, Soliman Aga, offered the beverage for sale from a tent, which was also a kind of booth, in the fair of St. Germain, supplemented by the service of Turkish waiter boys, who peddled it among the crowds from small cups on trays.

The fair was held during the first two months of spring, in a large open plot just inside the walls of Paris and near the Latin Quarter. As Pascal's waiter boys circulated through the crowds on those chilly days the fragrant odor of freshly made coffee brought many ready sales of the steaming beverage; and soon visitors to the fair learned to look for the '"little black" cupful of cheer, or "petit noir", a name that still endures.

When the fair closed, Pascal opened a small coffee shop on the Quai de l'Ecole, near the Pont Neuf; but his frequenters were of a type who preferred the beers and wines of the day, and coffee languished. 

Pascal continued, however, to send his waiter boys with their large coffee jugs, that were heated by lamps, through the streets of Paris and from door to door. Their cheery cry of "café! café!" became a welcome call to many a Parisian, who later missed his petit noir when Pascal gave up and moved on to London, where coffee drinking was then in high favor.

Street Coffee Vendor of Paris

Street Coffee Vendor of Paris — Period. 1672 to 1689
Two Sous per Dish, Sugar Included

Lacking favor at court, coffee's progress was slow. The French smart set clung to its light wines and beers. In 1672, Maliban, another Armenian, opened a coffee house in the rue Bussy, next to the Metz tennis court near St.-Germain's abbey.  He supplied tobacco also to his customers...

All these, and others were essentially the Oriental style of coffee house of the lower order, and they appealed principally to the poorer classes and to foreigners. "Gentlemen and people of fashion" did not care to be seen in this type of public house. But when the French merchants began to set up, first at St.-Germain's fair, "spacious apartments in an elegant manner, ornamented with tapestries, large mirrors, pictures, marble tables, branches for candles, magnificent lustres, and serving coffee, tea. chocolate, and other refreshments", they were soon crowded with people of fashion and men of letters.

In this way, coffee drinking in public acquired a badge of respectability. Presently, there were some three hundred coffee houses in Paris. The principal coffee men, in addition to plying their trade in the city, maintained coffee rooms in St.-Germain's and St. Laurence's fairs. Women, as well as men, frequented these.

The Cafe de Procope in 1743

The Cafe de Procope in 1743

The Progenitor of the Real Parisian Café

It was not until 1689, that there appeared in Paris a real French adaptation of the Oriental coffee house. This was the Café de Procope, opened by Francois Procope (Procopio Cultelli, or Cotelli) who came from Florence or Palermo. Procope was a limonadier (lemonade vendor) who had royal license to sell spices, ices, barley water, lemonade, and other such refreshments. He early added coffee to the list and attracted a large and distinguished patronage.

Procope, a keen-witted merchant, made his appeal to a higher class of patrons than did Pascal and those who first followed him.  He established his café directly opposite the newly opened Comédie Française, in the street then known as the rue des Fosses-St.-Germain, but now the rue de l'Ancienne Comédie.

Because of its location, the Café de Procope became the gathering place of many noted French actors, authors, dramatists, and musicians of the eighteenth century. It was a veritable literary salon. Voltaire was a constant patron; and until the close of the historic café, after an existence of more than two centuries, his marble table and chair were among the precious relics of the coffee house. His favorite drink is said to have been a mixture of coffee and chocolate.

Naturally, the name of Benjamin Franklin, recognized in Europe as one of the world's foremost thinkers in the days of the American Revolution, was often spoken over the coffee cups of Café de Procope; and when the distinguished American died in 1790, this French coffee house went into deep mourning "for the great friend of “republicanism." The walls, inside and out, were swathed in black bunting, and the statesmanship and scientific attainments of Franklin were acclaimed by all frequenters.

The Café de Procope looms large in the annals of the French Revolution. During the turbulent days of 1789, one could find at the tables, drinking coffee or stronger beverages, and engaged in the debate over the burning questions of the hour.

After the Revolution, the Café de Procope lost its literary prestige and sank to the level of an ordinary restaurant.  History records that, with the opening of the Café de Procope, coffee became firmly established in Paris. In the reign of Louis XV, there were 600 café s in Paris. At the close of the eighteenth century, there were more than 800. By 1843, the number had increased to more than 3000.

The Cafe Foy in the Palais Royal, 1789

The Cafe Foy in the Palais Royal, 1789

The Development of the Cafés

Coffee's vogue spread rapidly, and many cabarets and famous eating houses began to add it to their menus. Among these was the Tour d’Argent (silver tower), which had been opened on the Quai de la Tournelle in 1582, and speedily became Paris most fashionable restaurant.

It still is one of the chief attractions for the epicure, retaining the reputation for its cooking that drew a host of world leaders, from Napoleon to Edward VII, to its quaint interior.

When coffee houses began to crop up rapidly in Paris, the majority centered in the Palais Royal, "that garden spot of beauty, enclosed on three sides by three tiers of galleries." Soon after the opening of the Café de Procope, it began to blossom out with many attractive coffee stalls, or rooms, sprinkled among the other shops that occupied the galleries overlooking the gardens.

The beginnings of the Regency coffee house are associated with the legend that Lefevre, a Parisian, began peddling coffee in the streets of Paris about the time Procope opened his café in 1689.

The story has it that Lefevre later opened a café near the Palais Royal, selling it in 1718 to one Leclerc, who named it the Café de la Régence, in honor of the regent of Orleans, a name that still endures on a broad sign over its doors. The nobility had their rendezvous there after having paid their court to the regent. 

Cafes on the Boulevard Montmartre, Paris 1893

Cafes on the Boulevard Montmartre, Paris 1893

To name the patrons of the Café de la Régence in its long career would be to
outline the history of French literature for more than two centuries. There was Philidor the "greatest theoretician of the eighteenth century, better known for his chess than his music"; Robespierre, of the Revolution, who once played chess with a girl disguised as a boy for the life of her lover; Napoleon, who was then noted more for his chess than his empire-building propensities; and Gambetta, whose loud voice, generally raised in debate, disturbed one chess player so much that he protested because he could not follow his game.

Chess is today still in favor at the Régence, although the players are not, as
were the earlier patrons, obliged to pay by the hour for their tables with extra charges for candles placed by the chess-boards.  The present Café de la Régence is in the rue St. Honoré but retains in large measure its aspect of golden days.

The vogue of coffee popularized the use of sugar, which was then bought by the ounce at the apothecary's shop. Dufour says that in Paris they used to put so much sugar in the coffee that "it was nothing but a syrup of blackened water." The ladies were wont to have their carriages stop in front of the Paris cafés and to have their coffee served to them by the porter on saucers of silver.

Every year saw new cafés opened. When they became so numerous, and competition grew so keen, it was necessary to invent new attractions for customers.

Then was born the café chantant, where songs, monologues, dances, little plays and farces (not always in the best taste), were provided to amuse the frequenters. Many of these cafés chantants were in the open air along the Champs-Elysees.

In bad weather, Paris provided the pleasure-seeker with the Eldorado, Alcazar d'Hiver, Scala, Gaiete, Concert du XIXme Steele, Folies Bobino, Rambuteau, Concert European, and countless other meeting places where one could be served with a cup of coffee. 

As in London, certain cafés were noted for particular followings, like the military, students, artists, merchants. The politicians had their favorite resorts.

The Cafe des Mille Colonnes in 1811

The Cafe des Mille Colonnes in 1811

Historic Parisian Cafés

Some of the historic cafés are still thriving in their original locations, although the majority have now passed into oblivion. Glimpses of the more famous houses are to be found in the novels, poetry, and essays written by the French literati who patronized them.

These first-hand accounts give insights that are sometimes stirring, often amusing, and frequently revolting — such as the assassination of St. Fargeau in Fevrier's low-vaulted cellar café in the Palais Royal.

Perhaps the boulevard des Italiens had, and still has, more fashionable cafés than any other section of the French capital.  The Tortoni, opened in the early days of the Empire by Velloni, an Italian lemonade vendor, was the most popular of the boulevard cafés and was generally thronged with fashionables from all parts of Europe.

Here, Louis Blanc, historian of the Revolution, spent many hours in the early days of his fame... Farther down the boulevard was the Café Riche, Maison Poree, Café Anglais, and the Café de Paris.

The Riche and the Doree, standing side by side, were both high-priced and noted for their revelries. The Anglais, which came into existence after the snuffing out of the Empire, was also distinguished for its high prices, but in return gave an excellent dinner and fine wines. It is told that even during the siege of Paris the Anglais offered its patrons "such luxuries as ass, mule, peas, fried potatoes, and champagne."

Probably the Café de Paris, which came into existence in 1822, in the former home of the Russian Prince Demidoff, was the most richly equipped and elegantly conducted of any café in Paris in the nineteenth century.

The Café Literaire opened on Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle late in the nineteenth century, made a direct appeal to literary men for patronage, printing this footnote on its menu: "Every customer spending a franc in this establishment is entitled to one volume of any work to be selected from our vast collection."

The Cafe De Paris in 1843

The Cafe De Paris in 1843

Interior of a Typical Parisian Cafe of the Early Nineteenth CenturyInterior of a Typical Parisian Cafe of the Early Nineteenth Century
Chess has been a favorite pastime at the Café de la Régence

Chess has been a favorite pastime at the Café de la Régence

Ukers, William H., M.A., All About Coffee, "Chapter XI: History of the Early Parisian Coffee Houses," New York: The Tea and Coffee Trade Journal Company, 1922, p. 91-104.

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