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New Café society's bean roasted by research

If you're sitting in a cafe enjoying a coffee thinking you're part of a new, urbane, chic "Cafe Culture", well you're not, you're in fact doing something your grandparents did.

An on-line exhibition by students from Victoria University's Master of Public History programme and the History Group of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, titled "Caffeine: a history of cafe culture in Wellington 1920-1999", challenges the notion that cafe culture in Wellington is a recent phenomenon.

The exhibition shows that there are antecedents to the cafe culture of today. Victoria University History Lecturer, Ben Schrader, says that the so-called "Cafe Culture" can be traced back to the 1920s and provides the context for today.

In her research student Rosemary Mercer asked: 'What did Wellingtonians do before there were coffee bars?' She found that in the 1920s and 30s tea-rooms were fashionable among women shoppers and others with leisure time. The main department stores boasted grand and (often) ornate tea-rooms, where patrons would be served tea and cakes by waitresses in crisp black and white uniforms.

For many Wellingtonians it was a 'birthday treat' to go to tea at Gamble and Creeds in Lambton Quay, or across the road at the DIC department store.

The research also illustrated the social attitudes of the time through issues such as whether milk bars could actually sell milk. In 1937 the Wellington City Council, who issued milk licenses, prosecuted the owners of the Sunshine Milk Bar in Manners Street for selling milk without a license. The presiding judge ruled that milk shakes were not milk (due to the flavouring) and, therefore, a license was not required; a result that led to an enduring urban myth that milk shakes were not made from milk.

Peter Attwell examines some of the early coffee lounges in the city, including the French Maid, near Stewart Dawson's Corner, and the 'Coffee Gallery', upstairs in Roy Parson's bookshop in Massey House. Opened by the European emigre Harry Seresin, the Coffee Gallery fostered a European atmosphere and became a favourite haunt of Wellington's artistic and intellectual community, including James K Baxter, Marilyn Duckworth and Bill Oliver.

Across town, in Majoribanks Street, Mary Seddon opened another 1950s and 60s institution, the 'Monde Marie' in 1958. Seddon returned to Wellington from Europe and found there was nowhere to go and sit around, drink wine and coffee and talk."

The 'Monde Marie' quickly became a haunt of Wellington's bohemian crowd and folk music enthusiasts. Draped in fishing nets and featuring candles stuck in old wine bottles, it became the model for many other cafes around the city.

Another, more notorious, cafe was Carmen's International Coffee Lounge, where one could purchase both coffee and sex, depending on how one placed his or her cup.

Nancy Swarbrick shows that the rise of cafe culture in the 1950s and 60s was not restricted to Wellington. Auckland and Hamilton also had strong local coffee 'scenes'. The appeal of the cafes lay in the fact that they opened late into the night. At a time when pubs closed at 6pm, the cafes became a favourite meeting place for young people and those wanting a 'night on the town'. Morever they often served good food and provided music and other entertainment.

The decline of this generation of cafes, argues Swarbrick, was attributable to relaxation of the liquor laws in 1967 - allowing pubs to stay open until 10pm - and the rise of television; meaning more people stayed at home to watch 'the box'.

Other issues tackled in the exhibition include an examination of music and
cafes and the impact of immigration on the cafe scene. The exhibition opens
on 27 November and can be found at

Applications for entry into the Masters of Public History programme in 2001 close in December and are available from Dr Giselle Byrnes. Email:, phone: 463 5233 x 8043.

© Scoop Media

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