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.”

DestinationTea
Tea Voyageuse, discovering the world of afternoon tea, based in Atlanta, Georgia.

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