The Italian coffee bar is today seen as a symbol of the ‘traditional’ lifestyle of the country, a rallying point against the Americanisation of daily life. Yet Italian espresso is a twentieth century product whose role as a mass consumer good only began in the 1950s. This article traces both the technical evolution of espresso via
the improvement of the coffee machine, and the creation of a new culture of consumption with its own set of conventions. The various agents within the coffee business are considered machine makers, coffee roasters and bar proprietors as are the contests between them. The article shows how espresso has
acquired a ‘history’ that has become an essential part of its identity.