Café Culture

Viennese Café Culture

The Viennese Café Culture and Clubs

Ruth from Club Historians recently spent a very pleasant autumnal weekend in Vienna, taking in some of the sights along with visiting some very old and quite grand cafés. 

That’s very nice, you might say but what has that got to do with clubs and their history?

Surely Vienna is famous for its coffee and pastries rather pints and pies, Mozart and Strauss rather than Queen tribute acts, the Danube rather than the Don.  Surely all things Viennese are a far cry from our humble clubs?

But it’s not such a far cry, especially when taking a step back in history which readers know I am fond of doing!

Vienna at the crossroads of the 20th century was a city brimming with culture of all sorts, still one of the capitals of the huge but declining Austro-Hungarian Empire, and buzzing with life as old met the new, East met West.  The rich and those aspiring to the higher echelons of society frequented the famous Viennese cafés which were part of its vibrant cultural life. 

These cafes had many similarities to clubs even if their clientele were much more well-to-do than our working class miners, steelworkers and weavers.  Inside the cafes, wealthy Viennese men vienna 3 180enjoyed their games such as billiards, dominoes and cards just as much as ‘our’ men did even though miles and cultures apart.  They were also partial to some entertainment from time to time such as singers.  Whilst enjoying their café activities, they did not differ from working class English men in their in preference for an all-male environment, sharing the camaraderie of their peers and friends.  They had similar ambiguous attitudes towards women who were allowed in the cafes only as employees or entertainers though some women did run cafés.  In comparative terms, Vienna’s fin de siecle café society didn’t look so different to our own clubs. 

They were not strictly speaking members-only institutions but certain cafés did like to restrict who made use of them and some had artistic and political leanings.  Men could discuss politics and the state of the world, which was changing rapidly in that pre-WW1 period.  Clubs also did in the early days, providing spaces for political debate as did the Viennese cafés.  Coffee may have been the preferred drink rather than beer but there was alcohol available and in many ways, the cafés acted like clubs where the billiard table may take pride of place. 

vienna 1 180I found myself in one in the town of Melk, 80 kilometres outside Vienna, which had a lovely snooker table in one of its rooms, a bar in another, with coffee and pastries available all day. 

It strikes me that when you look around the world, the differences between us are harder to find than the similarities and forming some sort of club appears as a common human trait, whether in a grand old café or a not so beautiful building over here. 

Not too long after the heyday of Viennese café society, Austrian men were joining their army to fight against our own club men.  Probably on both sides of the lines, most men just wanted to be back home in their clubs or cafes, sipping coffee or beer, playing billiards or cards, enjoying their own leisure spaces. 

Let’s hope we never again line up against each other but share instead the things we like doing most in our spare time.  The similarities are something to celebrate whether with coffee and cake or half a bitter and a bag of crisps!

Ruth Cherrington


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