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project findings | PROJECT OUTLINE |

The Cappuccino Conquests: A Transnational History of Italian Coffee

The project traced the history of Italian style coffee drinks from the evolution of espresso in the 1900s through to the global popularity of cappuccino and caffè latte today. This success is explained by the properties of the beverages themselves, the surroundings in which they were served, and the meanings constructed around them. By reconstructing the ‘commodity biography’ of espresso, the project demonstrated how innovations in production and preparation (e.g. beverage sizes) interacted with changes in social practices and perceptions within consumer societies (e.g. the image of Italy) to create a diversity of cultures of consumption.

The project ran from September 2004 to September 2006

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Project team
Jonathan Morris award holder
Claudia Baldoli

Professor Jonathan Morris
University of Hertfordshire
de Havilland Campus
History Subject Group,
Faculty of Humanities, Law and Education
AL10 9AB

01707 285563

Publications include

Baldoli C. ‘La crema d’Italia. Esportazione dell’espresso e costruzione di un simbolo dal dopoguerra ad oggi’

Morris J. ‘Imprenditoria italiana in Gran Bretagna. Il consumo del caffè “stile italiano” ’ in: Italia Contemporanea, 241 (2005). Baldoli C. ‘L’espresso. Modernità e tradizione nell’Italia del caffè’

Morris J. ‘La globalizzazione dell’espresso italiano’ – both in: Baldoli C and Morris J. (eds.) Made in Italy. Consumi e identità colletive in secondo dopoguerra. Theme issue of Memoria e Ricerca, XIV (23) 2006.

Morris J. ‘The Cappuccino Conquests: A Transnational History of Italian Coffee’ downloadable at:  



Project outline

The following is the text of the project's original proposal


In 1948 Achille Gaggia began production of a revolutionary machine for use in Italian coffee bars. This produced a form of espresso coffee that could not be recreated domestically, placing it at the centre of a ‘drinking out’ culture of consumption. The machines were exported worldwide, usually through agents in the Italian emigrant community. In the last twenty years, fuelled by the spread of American-style coffee chains, there has been an explosion in the consumption of ‘Italian-style’ coffee. The cultures surrounding this are far from homogenous, however. In Italy most coffee is consumed as espresso, drunk standing at the counter of the local, independent, bar. Strict conventions govern what is drunk and when. Conversely cappuccino and caffè latte, usually sipped seated at a table, are the drinks most frequently ordered throughout the day in the coffee shops of the US and UK.

Britain has experienced two coffee booms. The first was in the 1950s when coffee bars equipped with new machines and modern interiors provided a hint of continental sophistication that was particularly appealing to a younger generation brought up in a climate of post-war austerity. The second dates from the mid-1990s when the coffee shop format was imported from the US. Coffee was presented as a sophisticated, premium, product and priced to match. Yet several British chains have chosen to brand themselves as Italian, some even highlighting their Anglo-Italian heritage. This makes the UK a valuable site in which to study the ‘meanings’ manufactured around espresso coffee consumption, not least that of the ‘nationality’ of the drink itself. The project will thus facilitate understanding of the evolution of a ‘glocal’ culture of consumption – i.e. a local culture of consumption of a now global beverage.

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The project is divided into three main sections.

The first examines the history of espresso-based drinks in Italy itself. The structures of the coffee industry in Italy will be analysed with emphasis placed on the connections and collaboration between producers, manufacturers, distributors and vendors. The reasons why no coffee shop chains have developed in the country itself will be discussed. The culture surrounding coffee consumption will be investigated, concentrating on the development of a ‘drinking out’ culture more suited to the city than the countryside. Did the new machines become a symbol of Italy’s transition to an industrial society? Lastly the project will examine the ways in which producers promoted ‘Italian-style coffee’ outside the country, and the impact that the increasing identification of coffee with Italy abroad came to have upon the country itself.

In 1950 the first coffee bar using a Gaggia machine opened in Britain – the Moka in Soho. By 1960, there were 2,000 bars throughout the UK. Thereafter, cappuccino declined in visibility, retreating into the Italian-styled restaurant and catering sector, until re-emerging as a cosmopolitan drink in the 1980s. The second section of the project will consider the channels through which Italian coffee entered the UK, the meanings that were constructed around it, and the explanations for the changes in its fortunes. It will focus on the role of the Anglo-Italian community as agents in this diffusion; investigating both their own uses of coffee and the ways they adapted the drink to British tastes. The popularity of ‘frothy coffee’ amongst the youth cultures of the 1950s will be analysed, along with the reasons for its subsequent demise.

The explosion in Italian coffee consumption at the end of the twentieth century forms the object of the last section of research. The project will study the creation of an American culture of Italian coffee consumption in which the drinks are served larger and warmer, there are no conventions governing what to drink when, and new beverages are developed and ‘authenticated’ through Italianate designations, such as mochaccino. The transfer of this format to Britain in the 1990s will be investigated, with particular attention being paid to the appeal of coffee shops amongst social groups such as the young (perhaps emulating the US culture seen on TV series such as ‘Friends’), women (using a ‘safe’ public space for socialising), and commuters and office workers (seeking a refuge from the long hours culture). Business strategies within the sector will be analysed with particular weight placed on the use of branding, and the ways in which ‘Italian’ and ‘American’ chains have projected their ‘nationality’ and values to customers. Finally the penetration of espresso-based coffees into mainstream catering to the point that they are available from automatic machines on garage forecourts will be considered, posing the question as to whether the ‘democratisation’ of the drinks has deprived them of their Italianess.

The project will therefore engage with current interdisciplinary debates about the nature of local and global cultures of consumption, and the transfers between them, such as the value of ‘nationality’ in brand equity; the role of food and drink in the formation of social identities amongst diaspora communities; the uses of ‘exotic’ products by ‘cosmopolitan’ consumers; and the need to understand current consumption practices as products of the past.

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  • What was the impact of Gaggia’s machine on cultures of coffee consumption in Italy?
  • How was Italian style coffee exported into new markets?
  • What were the social and spatial patterns of the diffusion of Italian coffee within the UK?
  • What ‘meanings’ and ‘uses’ has Italian coffee had for its consumers?
  • How did the American speciality coffee boom lead to a global explosion in consumption?
    Is there a British ‘glocal’ culture of Italian coffee consumption?
  • Does cappuccino still possess ‘nationality’?

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Evidence will be drawn from a wide variety of sources, include published and archival records, company documentation, contemporary newspapers and journals, market research, cultural products (e.g. literature, music and film), and visual and material evidence (such as the interiors of coffee bars and collections of machines). Particular emphasis will be placed on the use of oral history, drawing on interviews with current and former industry members, the Anglo-Italian community and representative consumers.

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The project will communicate its findings through a series of academic articles and a short accessible monograph. A public exhibition based on the project’s findings will also be held, and an event for the Anglo-Italian business community will be organised through the Italian Chamber of Commerce. An international conference in London will mark the end of the project, while an interim workshop will be held in Venice: speakers from the project will also address major conferences in Italy, the UK and the USA.


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