The history of coffee houses, from the first recorded appearance in 1475 of a public place serving coffee in the Turkish city of Constantinople (now Istanbul), is well documented. But what about the more humble coffee cart? The coffee cart, a mobile method of taking coffee to where the drinkers are gathered, rather than them having to visit a fixed location, is a more recent development, and does not seem to have been so well recorded.
Coffee cart history – the chuck wagon
Generally speaking, the earliest version of the coffee cart is considered to be the chuck wagons used by cowboys on long cattle drives in 19th century America. The chuck wagon was essentially a portable kitchen, reportedly invented in 1866 by a rancher named Charles Goodnight, who is sometimes referred to as “the father of the Texas Panhandle”. Goodnight modified an old army surplus wagon, equipping it with shelves, storage space, a hinged lid for counter space, a water barrel and a space for firewood.
This early forerunner of the modern coffee cart also had a stove, cooking utensils, and provisions, and as coffee was a staple on the cattle drives, he included coffee pots to brew over an open fire. The coffee brewed in these pots was often strong and bitter, but it provided the cowboys with the caffeine boost they needed to keep going on long drives. The chuck wagon coffee was often made with robusta beans, which were cheaper and more readily available than arabica beans. The coffee was served black, with no sugar or cream, as these luxuries were not readily available on the trail.
A chuck wagon – an early version of the coffee cart?
Hold on cowboy, not so fast… There were coffee carts in London too!
Around the same time as the chuck wagons were crossing the plains of the United States of America, in Victorian London other early versions of the coffee cart were also appearing, along with other ways for people to serve ‘mobile’ coffee. ‘London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. 1’ (see 1 – below) by Henry Mayhew, is an extraordinarily detailed exploration of life in London in the middle of the 19th Century for working class and poor people. The descriptions of street life include the very common ‘coffee stall’, which ‘usually consists of a spring-barrow, with two, and occasionally four, wheels’ (definitely sounds like a early coffee cart from that description!).
These stalls (or carts) had several urns, heated by a small iron fire-pot, to keep the coffee (and tea, which was also served) hot. These early coffee carts also sold bread and butter, cake, fruit cake, ham sandwiches and even hardboiled eggs. As well as regular coffee, some of these early coffee carts sold a cheaper alternative too, with dried carrot and chicory added to the coffee. (It’s probably worth pointing out that in Victorian London, drinking coffee was safer than drinking plain water because the water for making coffee was boiled first).
Although this illustration (based on a Daguerreotype – an early type of photograph) was labelled in the original book (see 1 – below) as ‘The London Coffee-Stall’ – it’s surely a contender for the first recorded picture of a coffee cart!
Furthermore, in another essay titled ‘Dickensian London: Everyday Life in the Victorian City’ (see 2 – below) Judith Flanders describes typical early morning scenes around the daily markets that were an important part of commerce at the time. Together with all the market suppliers and produce sellers, there were other people who made their living in and around the markets, including ‘coffee stall keepers’. These early ‘mobile coffee sellers’ carried cans of coffee from yokes on their shoulders, with a small smudge-pot charcoal fire already lit beneath them. As most working people in London at the time lived very simply, they did not have access to running water and facilities to store food or prepare meals, so they would often rely on street vendors for food and drink.
Flanders goes on to quote from various authors and memoirists, who vividly described a wide range of refreshment stalls in the streets of different parts of London, from ‘the simplest makeshifts to elaborate structures’. Most notably though, there is a description of a coffee stand in Islington (North London), which was erected each night outside a local pub. The vendor used a hand barrow to transport benches, a small table and ‘a great bright tin boiler with a brass tap’, which was heated by a small coke fire. Perhaps this is a description of the earliest ‘proper’ mobile coffee cart as it would be recognised today, getting on for 200 years later!
Coffee carts in the early 20th Century
The early 20th Century saw the rise of the coffee cart in urban areas. In the United States, the carts were often run by immigrants who had come to the country seeking a better life. Like their Victorian forerunner, they were simple affairs, often consisting of little more than a cart or wagon with a stove, a pot, and a few cups. Being small and mobile, this allowed the vendor to easily and move their coffee cart from one location to another. The coffee served by these carts was usually of a higher quality than the coffee brewed on the cattle drives of the 19th Century. Arabica beans were more widely available, and vendors often roasted their own beans to ensure freshness. The coffee was still served black in most cases, but sugar and cream were becoming more readily available. In addition to coffee, these carts often sold other beverages, such as tea and hot chocolate, and small snacks like donuts and pastries. They were often found outside factories and office buildings, providing workers with a quick and convenient way to get their caffeine fix. As the popularity of coffee grew, so too did the mobile coffee business.
In the 1920s and 1930s, more elaborate coffee carts and stands began to appear on the streets of major American cities. These were larger and more sophisticated than the earlier carts, with space for seating and more elaborate brewing equipment. They were a hit with coffee lovers, who could enjoy their favourite beverage on the go or at outdoor events. The advent of World War II brought further changes to the mobile coffee industry. With many soldiers and workers on the move, the demand for coffee increased dramatically, and coffee carts and stands were a common sight on military bases and in factory towns. These carts were often operated by women, who were known as “coffee girls” and were an important part of the war effort. The millions of American troops who found themselves in Europe after the war was over no doubt also had an influence on coffee culture. After the war, the mobile coffee cart continued to evolve. In the 1950s and 1960s, coffee trucks and trailers began to appear, offering more space and amenities. These coffee trucks were often used at events like fairs and festivals, where they could serve large crowds of people quickly and efficiently.
The modern mobile coffee cart
The modern mobile coffee cart has its roots in the that food truck revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Food trucks were a way for entrepreneurs to sell their wares without the expense of having a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and so they were often found in urban areas, where they provided a convenient and affordable option for people who wanted to grab a quick meal and refreshment on the go. Coffee carts followed suit, and by the 1980s and 1990s, they had become a common sight in cities not just in America and Europe, but around the world. These carts were often more sophisticated than their early 20th century counterparts, incorporating new technologies and innovations. As the popularity of specialty coffee grew, many coffee carts began offering a wider variety of high-quality coffee drinks, including iced coffee and espresso-based drinks, along with pastries and other snacks.
Mobile coffee stands and carts can now be found in many different locations, from city streets to music festivals and sporting events. They are often customised to suit the needs of the vendor and the event they are attending, with branding, signage, and equipment tailored to the specific occasion. The continued rise of the specialty coffee industry in the 21st century has led to the development of even more advanced mobile coffee carts. These carts often feature top-of-the-line espresso machines, grinders, and other equipment, allowing vendors to offer high-quality coffee that rivals that of a traditional coffee shop.
In addition to traditional coffee drinks, many modern coffee carts now offer a range of teas, smoothies, and other beverages, as well as snacks and light bites. The advent of the internet and social media also allowed coffee cart vendors to reach a wider audience, and to promote their products and services to customers through digital channels. And with the rise of mobile payment technologies and app-based ordering systems, coffee carts are becoming even more convenient and accessible than ever before, and they continue to be an important part of the coffee industry.
Mobile coffee carts around the world
Mobile coffee carts are found across the globe, each with its own unique style and culture. Here are just a few examples of mobile carts from different countries:
Australia and New Zealand
Australia and New Zealand have a vibrant coffee culture, and mobile coffee carts are a staple of city life in cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Christchurch and Wellington. These carts are sometimes owned and operated by independent coffee roasters, who source their coffee beans from around the world and then roast them locally. Australian mobile coffee carts are generally known for their high-quality coffee, and many vendors offer espresso-based drinks like flat whites and cappuccinos, as well as breakfast items such as eggs and toast, and sweet treats, such as muffins and cakes.
In Japan, mobile coffee carts are often found at train stations, providing commuters with a quick caffeine fix on their way to work. These carts are typically small and compact, and they often feature a simple setup that allows the vendor to move quickly from one location to another. Japanese mobile coffee carts are known for their attention to detail, with vendors often using specialized tools and techniques to prepare the perfect cup of coffee. In many cases, Japanese coffee carts also serve light snacks, such as onigiri rice balls, and sweet treats such as mochi rice cakes.
Mobile coffee carts in India are often operated by street vendors, who sell their wares on busy street corners and marketplaces. These carts usually offer a variety of hot beverages, including chai tea and coffee. The coffee served in India is often made with robusta beans, which are grown locally and are known for their strong, bold flavour.
In Mexico, mobile coffee carts are often found at outdoor markets and festivals, providing attendees with a convenient way to get their caffeine fix. Mexican coffee carts typically offer a variety of hot and cold beverages, including traditional Mexican coffee drinks like café de olla, which is made with cinnamon and piloncillo, a type of unrefined sugar.
Mobile coffee carts in the United States can be found in cities and towns across the country. The carts are often operated by independent coffee roasters, who source their beans from a variety of places around the world and roast them locally. As well as a variety of specialty coffee drinks, such as lattes, cappuccinos, and Americanos, and baked goods, such as muffins and croissants, American mobile coffee carts are known for their creativity and innovation, with vendors often experimenting with new flavours and techniques to create unique and exciting coffee drinks.
The history of the humble coffee cart is a testament to the enduring popularity of coffee and the ingenuity of entrepreneurs around the world. From the chuck wagons of the 19th century to the modern mobile carts of today, the coffee cart has evolved to meet the needs of a changing world. Whether you’re grabbing a quick cup of coffee on your way to work or enjoying a specialty drink at a music festival, there is no doubt that the coffee cart has become an essential part of coffee culture around the world.
1 – London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. 1 by Henry Mayhew – Project Guttenberg free eBook – https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/55998/pg55998-images.html
2 – Dickensian London: Everyday Life in the Victorian City – by Judith Flanders – 2015 https://www.thehistoryreader.com/cultural-history/the-victorian-dickensian-london/