The Rise of the American Tea Room: Serving Women’s Rights with a Cup of Tea

This summer, just as I was trying to understand why a place without an afternoon tea service would be called a “tea room,” I discovered the answer inside this treasure:  Jan Whitaker’s Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn, A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America (copyright 2002).

Cover of "Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn" by Jan Whitaker
(c) 2002, Cover of “Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn” by Jan Whitaker

I can now explain how “tea room” became a bit of a misnomer in American culture, but more importantly, get this:  the independent American tea room gave women entrée into the restaurant industry, both as proprietresses and patronesses. Pretty great, right?

You see, as Ms. Whitaker explains, “The restaurant business was closely associated in many people’s minds with catering to appetites of all kinds, including sexual appetites. For a woman to enter this business at the turn of the century, even as an unescorted patron, was a risk to her reputation…Women’s exclusion from many public dining rooms in the 1900s and 1910s was undoubtedly a factor in their attraction to female-friendly tea rooms. Most women were reluctant to challenge the widespread rule in hotels and fine dining rooms that unescorted women would not be served.”

Yikes. We owe a debt of gratitude to the women who changed those social mores!

Here’s how they did it:  they seized the opportunities presented by 1. high society’s love of afternoon tea, 2. the burgeoning motorist population and growing road infrastructure, and 3. the national prohibition of alcohol.

As afternoon tea was coming into fashion in the U.S. around the turn of the 19th century, independent urban tea rooms competed with the palm courts and tea salons of hotels and department stores, catering to the upper classes.

Tea at Charters Towers, 1880, Courtesy of New Old Stock
Tea at Charters Towers, 1880, Courtesy of New Old Stock

“Hotel tea rooms were managed by men for the most part, but the small independent tea rooms that began in the 1910s were usually owned, operated and fully staffed by women, often times middle-class women…Because men would not work under the command of a woman, the owners had little choice but to hire all-women staffs — quite a novelty.”

When the city-dwelling elite classes repaired to their summer homes and resorts, some city tea rooms would relocate to the country for the summer season. Likewise, rural roadside tea rooms, often located within driving distance of a big city, began springing up to cater to recreational driving parties. 

“During the 1920s, at the height of the tea room craze, these little businesses were virtually synonymous with female self-expression.” Whether her tea room was a dining room set up in her own home, an outbuilding connected to a gas station, or a free-standing establishment, female proprietresses took advantage of their captive audience by using the dining area to showcase wares for sale, such as handmade items like textiles and jewelry or antique furniture and dishes.

Riverside Tea Room, Thousand Islands, NY, courtesy of Jan Whitaker "From Patrons to Chefs, a History of Women in Restaurants" Boston Hospitality Review
Riverside Tea Room, Thousand Islands, NY, courtesy of Jan Whitaker “From Patrons to Chefs, a History of Women in Restaurants” Boston Hospitality Review

Tea rooms became increasingly popular as they developed a reputation for simply-prepared, home-cooked fare with fresh ingredients. Then in 1920, when the temperance movement culminated in prohibition, diners looking for an alternative to the bar scene began flocking to the tea room. “Even before it was banned outright nationwide in 1920, alcohol consumption was viewed with disfavor by the teetotaling middle class who patronized tea rooms, (some of which borrowed the abbreviated T from the temperance campaign, calling themselves T-houses).”

“Contrary to what their name suggests, tea rooms didn’t necessarily revolve around tea, the beverage, nor tea, the repast…In the beginning, some tea rooms did serve only one meal, afternoon tea, which did indeed feature the beverage tea…These establishments could not make enough money on afternoon teas alone; Americans simply weren’t all that devoted to drinking tea or taking an afternoon break…Indeed, American tea rooms were in fact small restaurants, serving mainly lunch and, secondarily, dinner.” 

1920s tea room menu
1920s tea room menu

Atlanta has two such historical tea rooms, icons of successful female entrepreneurism:  one memorialized in a cookbook and one still operating today.

Frances Virginia Wikle Whitaker opened the Frances Virginia Tea Room in the late 1920s, and “by 1931, was serving 1,000 people a day…which meant 1 percent of Atlanta’s population was eating at the tea room each day!” (Thank you Angela of “Tea with Friends” for these details). The Frances Virginia remained open for nearly four decades, and is now memorialized in The Frances Virginia Tea Room Cookbook by Mildred Huff Coleman.

Frances Virginia Tea Room, courtesy of Fulton County GAGenWeb
Frances Virginia Tea Room, courtesy of Fulton County GAGenWeb

From Mary Mac’s Tea Room website:  “Mary Mac’s Tea Room doors first opened in 1945 when Mary McKenzie decided to use her good Southern cooking to make money in the tough post-World War II days. In those days, a woman couldn’t just open up a restaurant, so many female proprietors used the more genteel Southern name of “Tea Room.”…And there were at least 16 other Tea Rooms around in-town Atlanta with Mary Mac’s being the only one of them left.”

Mary Mac's Tea Room, Atlanta
Mary Mac’s Tea Room, Atlanta

Destination Tea salutes these first tea room proprietresses, who had the guts and ingenuity to change our world. Ms. Whitaker tells us that the August 1923 issue of Tea Room and Gift Shop deemed, “The success of a tea room is dependent not only upon the quality of the food served, but also up on the way it plays upon the imagination of its guests.”

Tea Party Favors: Tea Strainers (Steeped in Love)

Tomorrow when our family gathers for my cousin’s bridal shower, I hope they will love these favors I put together, of course featuring tea, this time from local tea shop ZenTea in Chamblee, GA. Whether you are hosting a tea party, a shower or another fête, these will be a hit with tea lovers and foodies alike (who can repurpose the tea strainer as an infuser for soups, stews or sauces).

Finished tea infuser party favors

I like party favors that are part consumable, part useful, part keepsake, and environmentally conscious. Well, yes, I realize that’s a tall order, but these did a fair job of filling it. These favors treat your guests to delicious teas and afterwards may provoke memories of your occasion, whenever the strainer is put to use.

MATERIALS (per favor)
– 1 tea strainer, try any grocery store with a varied kitchenware section
– 4 tea sachets, or 1-2 ounces of loose leaf tea
– 1 zip-loc bag
– 1 printed tag, on plain printer paper
– 1 card stock square
– 1 6″ ribbon
– 2 tulle circles
– scissors
– permanent marker
– pen
– hole puncher

STEP ONE:  Prep Your Tags
Choose colors that echo your theme. In this case I used the color palate of the bridesmaids’ dresses, with metallic green card stock as a backdrop. After printing the tags on regular printer paper and cutting them out, cut the card stock a bit larger than your paper tag, line the two papers up such that the card stock forms a border for your tag, then hole punch the two papers in one punch.

Tags for Steeped in our Love tea party favors

Cut diagonal tips on 6-inch lengths of ribbon that are narrow and pliable enough to be pushed through the split keyring near the strainer’s latch. Anything from a quarter-inch to half-inch ribbon should work.
Preparing tag for Steeped in Love tea infuser favors

STEP TWO:  Portion Your Teas
I chose to use teas in sachets to provide for guests who may be unfamiliar with loose leaf tea brewing techniques, but certainly loose leaf teas accompanied with a simple how-to brewing guide would also be perfectly paired with these strainers. To properly store the tea, it is important to seal it in an air-tight container. I used zip-loc bags, which are admittedly unattractive. We’ll address that in the final step.

ZenTea pyramid tea bags

Each favor had four pyramid tea bags, all of the same tea, because mixing flavors, unless individually wrapped, would likely blend and ruin the flavor of each. I marked each zip-loc bag with the tea type and brew time. In honor of my cousin the international traveler, I chose teas that called to mind a variety of countries, including Green Moroccan Mint, Green Cherry, Pu-erh Scottish Caramel and Herbal Piña Colada. Whichever teas you select, I suggest including a caffeine-free option. For bridal and wedding events, I highly recommend Harney & Sons Wedding Tea, which is too delicious.

Tea bags packaged and labeled for infuser party favors

STEP THREE:  Assemble Your Favors
To conceal the zip-loc bag, tightly wrap it around itself and pinch two tulle circles around it, before settling it into the tea strainer. Allow some tulle to poke out of the top, fanned a bit, but not uniformly, as you latch the strainer closed.

Stuffing tea infusers with tulle-wrapped tea bags

Infusers packed with tea bags

Now to finish, write the type of tea on the back of the card stock tag, loop your ribbon through both pieces of paper, then push through the tea strainer ring, and knot. One caution as you are working with the strainers – they are delicate! It is easy to lean on them and press them out of shape while you are affixing the tags.

Tying on labels to infusers

This project, for a quantity of 15, took me about four hours, from start (designing the tags) to finish, and cost about $5 each. Ask a friend to help you assemble over a pot of tea, and the time will pass quickly and enjoyably. Et voilà! I would love to hear from anyone who uses this idea or improves upon it.

Also, if you have a favorite tea-themed favor, please share in your comments or email me at


Destination Tea: The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead

UPDATE: As of September 2017, we were informed the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead will no longer be offering afternoon tea.

Where:  Buckhead, GA
Style:  Elegant Traditional
Tea Selection:  12+ loose leaf teas
Teatimes:  Friday-Sunday, 2 or 3
Reservations:  24-hour notice
Contact:  404-237-2700
Cost:  $60 The Ritz Tea; $44 Buckhead Classic Afternoon Tea; $21 Children’s Tea – sample menu here
Destination Tea Tips:  Dress is business casual, remember to bring cash for a tip if you plan to valet your car, and ask your server to validate your valet ticket. Upon entering, turn left to enter the Lobby Lounge, where tea is served. Ritz-Carlton Exterior

Destination Tea Notes:  Afternoon tea at the Ritz is an institution. Not surprising, given the Ritz is one of the original hoteliers to offer an afternoon tea service, both in the United States and abroad. In part, you are treating yourself to the Ritz’ luxurious ambiance, with a pianist playing softly as you relax into smooth leather armchairs or couches around the fireplace. Because we were a party of four, including two children, you’ll see the children’s menu items in the bottom tier. Our eleven-year-olds really enjoyed being included in this adult world, in which they dressed up, practiced their manners and happily munched and sipped everything they were offered. After making our way through the wide array of homemade savories, scones and sweets, we all agreed that the dessert course impressed us most with its deliciousness.

Ritz-Carlton Lobby
Upon entering, turn left to reach the Lobby Lounge for tea
Warm, rich tones invite you to tea
Warm, rich tones invite you to tea

Tea Service

Ritz Carlton Tea Service
Elegant china service
2016-07 Ritz-CarltonIMG_0211
We were invited to choose two teas to share over the first course, then a third with dessert. Rather than leave a teapot on the table, your server makes sure to refill your cup as needed.

Scones and Spreads, Savories and Sweets

2016-07 Ritz-CarltonIMG_0208
The scone here is less like a biscuit and more like a pancake in its consistency and flavor, served with jars of the traditional strawberry preserves, clotted cream and lemon curd.
2016-07 Ritz-CarltonIMG_0210
Sandwiches included cucumber with dill and lemon ricotta cream, Georgia shrimp profiterole with tarragon and basil, smoked salmon with caviar on pumpernickel, open face turkey canapé with orange marmalade, prosciutto and melon canapé with mint (a favorite) and traditional egg salad with truffle. The children had some of our items on their tier with an added ham and cheese sandwich.
Adults' treats included opera cake with passion fruit and edible silver, double chocolate cupcakes, key lime profiteroles, orange macarons, pistachio biscotti and the standout: mint chocolate torte. The children's tier included thumbprint cookies with gumdrops, double chocolate cupcakes, brownies, sugar cookies with lemon frosting and rice krispies.
Adults’ treats included opera cake with passion fruit and edible silver, double chocolate cupcakes, key lime profiteroles, orange macarons, pistachio biscotti and the standout: mint chocolate tortes. The children’s tier included thumbprint cookies with gumdrops, double chocolate cupcakes, brownies, sugar cookies with lemon frosting and rice krispies squares.