An illustration of the cafe Momus from
La Boheme by Gianni Puccini. Although this particular cafe was
frequented mainly by bohemians, similar cafes formed the conerstone
of working class life.
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the cafe in bohemian life
Although there were
various kinds of institutions that can be grouped under the general
heading of cafes, such as inns, taverns, wine merchant shops,
pubs, and coffee houses, for our purpose it is easier to think
about what they had in common rather than what divided them.
All cafes were in the business
of serving up alcohol and good fellowship. Alcohol became much
cheaper during the nineteenth century, and the working classes
were able to greatly increase their alcohol intake. Because of
the alcohol consumed there, cafes developed a somewhat shady
reputation as they were seen as contributing to the problems
that went along with increased alcohol consumption, such as gambling,
womanizing, and generally squandering the families scarce resources.
For reasons of reputation they were generally attended only by
men, or women in the presence of a male family member.
On the positive side, cafes
were a warm, inviting place. Due to the poor conditions of working class housing at the time, they were often the only
place with heat and light that a worker could go.
They were also the only public
spaces where workers could assemble in great numbers. For this
reason they were the sight of all planning for labor organizations
and protests, as well as working class uprisings and revolutions.
They also served as an informational hub for the working classes.
In addition to spreading the word about strikes and causes they
would also spread the word about the theater and other public
events. Usually a worker's newspaper would be read aloud for
the benefit of those who were illiterate. They were closely monitored
by the police in an attempt to prevent criminal activity.
Typically the clientele of
a particular cafe would consist of men of all ages united by
a common regional origin, neighborhood, or occupation. Since
Parisian neighborhoods at the time contained many concentrations
of occupations within only a few blocks, each might have its
A new arrival of the working
class would seek out the cafe where workers from his occupation
or his region gathered. There, in exchange for news about friends
and events where he was coming from he could receive tips on
job openings and cheap lodging.