The Rise of the Kaffeehaus
“A place where people want to be alone, but need company to do so.”
—Alfred Polgár (speaking of Café Central)
When Viennese coffeehouses came into their own in the early 1700s, the proprietors wanted to do more than serve beverages like a common inn. They needed to make their establishments distinctive. Someone took up the English custom of having free local newspapers available for the perusal of the clientele. By the 1720s, foreign newspapers began to appear in the coffeehouses, playing up to the merchant class who needed to know what was happening in Amsterdam or Berlin.
The new sport of billiards prompted other cafés to open playing rooms adjacent to the dining room. These rooms were necessarily long to hold the rectangular tables. Coffeehouses began being built on corner properties in an “L” shape. This allowed as much sunlight as possible to shine in so people could read more easily. One room was reserved for serving coffee and reading newspapers, and the other was for shooting billiards. At the junction of the two rooms was the cashier, usually a lady, who watched over the proceedings with an eagle eye. By 1736, an imperial decree gave coffeehouses tax-exempt status, an economy-increasing move, as people could drink freely without any additional costs added onto their coffee.
The Congress of Vienna in 1815 showed these refined establishments off to the world. By 1819, there were 150 coffeehouses in Vienna. After the Congress, Metternich suspected that a network of spies had stayed behind in the city to extract political secrets from the Hofburg, and he began a secret police effort to find the offenders. The Viennese began to suffer under the oppression of rumors and accusations.
To avoid being rounded up by the not-so-secret police, the citizens took two tactics. First, they simply stayed at home, running their lives along the straight and narrow and strengthening the rise of the middle class. Entertaining guests in well-appointed (but not ostentatious) homes became an art. Hosts and hostesses invited their guests to enjoy an evening of music; Schubert was a popular figure on the musicale circuit. Fine desserts were an expected part of the package. New cookbooks appeared to teach housewives how to bake, and bakeries were given ample opportunity to practice their art.
Coffeehouses provided the other means of escape. Their crowded atmosphere made it virtually impossible for a spy to overhear any conversation, subversive or not. Coffeehouses added mirrors, plush fabrics, and chandeliers to simulate the cozy interior of the Viennese home, and music to soothe caffeine-jangled nerves. The era from 1814 to 1848, characterized by the rising of the middle class and its expression of culture through home life, became known as the Biedermeier period. “Gottlieb Biedermaier” (which translates to something like “God-loving Goody-two-shoes”) was a shy do-gooder in some satirical verses by Ludwig Eichrodt that were published in the 1840s.
Biedermeier (with an “e”) became the accepted spelling later.
The Revolution of 1848 got rid of the elderly Metternich and his puppet, the emperor Ferdinand, replacing the two with the eighteen-year-old Franz Joseph. He was not a popular ruler from the start. The old city ramparts had been barely holding together since the Turkish invasion, and Franz Joseph decreed that they be razed. They were to be replaced with an impressive
grand boulevard, the Ringstrasse, lined with the important civic buildings of the city and court. These buildings were designed in the heavily ornamented Neoclassic mode, drawing from Gothic, Roman, Greek, and other styles of architecture. In 1873, Vienna held a world exhibition to celebrate Franz Joseph’s first twenty-five years of rule, and to show off the Ringstrasse and the other pleasures of the city, including, of course, the coffeehouses.
Now began the golden age of the Kaffeehaus. Entire literary movements were formed around coffeehouse tables. The most famous of all the literary cafés was Café Griensteidl, opened in 1847 and home to “Young Vienna,” a group of upstarts who wanted to do away with the stuffy confines of Neoclassicism in favor of the new and untried. Names like Hermann Bahr, Felix Dörmann, and Karl Kraus are best known to devotees of Austrian literature, but some of them made an impact on world culture. Hugo von Hofmannsthal was a wunderkind-poet who became the librettist for Richard Strauss’s most enduring operas; Felix Salten wrote
Bambi, which remains a children’s literature classic; the plays of Arthur Schnitzler, particularly Reigen (usually called La Ronde in English and French productions), are still performed.
Griensteidl was torn down in 1897 (the café that now stands on the spot is a reproduction of the original, built almost one hundred years later). Young Vienna packed up and moved lock, stock, and coffee cup to Café Central, right up the street. The stars here were Egon Friedell and Alfred Polgár, but they were out-classed by Peter Altenberg, the personification of eccentric, sandal-wearing bohemian writers (it is said that his final illness was complicated by his insistence on wearing sandals in the snow). Today, a life-size, painted statue of Altenberg sits at his table at the Central.
A monument to Adolf Loos’s minimalist style, Café Museum opened in 1899, shocking the establishment. Instead of the opulent surroundings they had come to expect in a coffeehouse, Loos gave them a room that expounded his philosophy of function dictating form. This place attracted a more theatrical crowd, drawing such regulars as Erich Wolfgang Korngold (remembered best for his Hollywood scores of the 1930s and ’40s), Alban Berg (whose music was as atonal as Korngold’s was florid), Frank Wedekind (the forerunner of Expressionism, whose plays
Pandora’s Box and Earth Spirit were the basis for Berg’s opera Lulu), and operetta composers Oscar Straus and Franz Léhar. Artists like Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele dipped their Kipferln here.
During this period, the coffeehouse was evolving from a refuge for the middle class to a democratic place where anyone could sit for hours for the price of a coffee. By no means were the celebrity Stammgäste (“regular customers”) always rich and famous while they were regulars at their favorite café. Vienna was tragically overpopulated, and housing for the lower classes was dismal. Many people went to the coffeehouse to warm up. Because so many writers could be found sitting at their favorite table hour after hour, cafés began taking phone calls and mail deliveries for their best guests. (Peter Altenberg’s calling card gave the Café Central as his address!) The cafés were to flourish until the end of World War I, and the subsequent fall of the Hapsburgs.