We argue over a coffee a lot these days. The interesting thing is, coffee in Melbourne has been controversial for longer than you’d expect.
If you think coffee culture here began with the influx of Greeks and Italians during the Second World War, here’s a quick history lesson.
In colonial times, men at street stalls on Hoddle’s Grid sold coffee to passers-by.
A Melbourne coffee stall. Via State Library of Victoria.
At the time, Melbourne writer Marcus Clarke described a typical coffee stall in his newspaper columns, compiled in the pamphlet The Peripatetic Philosopher.
“It consists of a barrow upon which is placed a large board, sometimes covered with oil cloth, and protected with an awning. On this board are set… a huge can of polished tin, with brass nozzle and spout. This tin holds about four or five gallons of coffee, which is kept hot by means of a pan of charcoal placed underneath it. By the side of the tin are ranged cups – very thick and heavy, sandwiches, greasy cakes, and a sort of plumduffs of very satisfying character…”
The coffee stand- early dawn. Via State Library of Victoria.
(A plumduff, by the way is a plum pudding.)
Up until the early 1870s, Melbourne’s coffee stalls could stay open all night long. Shopkeepers believed they were good for business. Restaurateurs disagreed, arguing the stalls stole their trade and attracted riffraff.
By the 1880s, the heart of Melbourne’s coffee-stall precinct was the corner of Bourke and Swanston streets. These “strange square boxes, with funnels sticking out of the roof” would slowly bring the city alive at night, “like a fairy scene at a pantomime,” fawned Australasian Sketcher in 1883.
Bourke Street on Saturday Night. Via State Library of Victoria.
The emergence of the temperance movement saw the increase of coffee taverns and coffee palaces in the 1880s. Perhaps the most famous of these was the Federal Coffee Palace. According to Andrew May, author of Espresso! Melbourne Coffee Stories, it housed “over 500 drawing, dining, reading, sitting, smoking, billiard and bedrooms and the largest dining hall in the country”. However, the economic depression of the 1890s saw popularity wane, with many palaces closing or being forced to apply for a liquor licence and start serving alcohol to survive.
Twentieth-century Melbourne saw the rise of cafes and coffee lounges. Fasoli’s (opened in 1897) and Café Petrushka (1937) played host to Melbourne’s bohemian crowd, attracting writers, poets, artists, and hangers on. In his book The Paper Chase, Hal Porter described clientele as the “famous, near-famous, flash-in-the-pan famous … famous to be” and “garrulous never-to-be-famous”.
The night birds of Melbourne. Via State Library of Victoria.
The arrival of American troops in Australia during World War II heralded a marked increase in the quality of Melbourne’s coffee, from a boiled concoction featuring chicory essence, to a more sophisticated brew using the latest coffee roasting and grinding techniques from America.
Cast Iron & Brass Coffee Grinder by Archibald Kendrick & Sons Ltd West Bromage. Photograph by Mark Strizic. This work is in copyright. Via State Library of Victoria.
In the 1950s, a coffee revolution occurred. Melbourne experienced an influx of post-war migrants, and with the Italians came the espresso. Mario Brunelli’s grocery at 262 Lygon Street began serving coffee with an espresso machine. In May 1954, Melbourne coffee pioneers the Bancrofts opened the first espresso cafe, Il Cappucino, in St Kilda’s Fitzroy Street with a commercial Gaggia coffee machine.
Vintage espresso machine at the “Gypsy Bar”, Brunswick St, Fitzroy, Melbourne. Photograph by Rennie Ellis. This work is in copyright. Via State Library of Victoria.
Espresso bars flourished in Melbourne’s city and its suburbs. They served as both a place where migrants could meet and socialise, and a breath of fresh air for Melbourne’s existing residents.
Not everyone was enamoured though. Conservatives denounced espresso bars as magnets for unsavoury characters and illegal activities.
On 14 January 1961, The Truth ran an expose on “espresso bar vultures”, alleging the bars were being used as a cover for prostitution rackets. In the ensuing weeks, the press ran stories on migrant-led vice in these cafes. An interview with an “Espresso bar girl” called “Jill” was broadcast on radio and TV. Melburnians listened spellbound as “Jill” outlined how she was victimised by teenage prostitution gangs in the city’s espresso bars.
Eventually, it was revealed “Jill” had made up her story at the behest of police and the press. The reputation of Italian migrants had been seriously harmed.
Next time you met a barista with a vendetta against soy or you’re offered a coffee with 80 shots of espresso in it, remember it’s not the first time coffee culture has gone “too far”. Except blue-algae lattes. That’s too far.
Pellegrini’s and The Paperback Books, Bourke Street, Melbourne, Victoria. Photograph by Debra McFadzean. Via State Library of Victoria.
A version of this article was originally published on the State Library of Victoria blog.