Tea Room History

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The history of tea rooms can in one sense be considered a small portion of the history of restaurants, along with soda fountains, ice cream parlours, and coffee houses. However this viewpoint overlooks or ignores the real importance of tea rooms and what social historians have come to rightfully call "the tea room movement."

You see, in the late 19th and early 20th century, tea rooms were far more than places to sit down for a light lunch or a spot of afternoon tea. They were intimately entwined with some of the major progressive political campaigns of their era, namely, the abolition of slavery; the rights of women to own property, drive vehicles, and vote; the rise of Spiritualism and metaphysics as women-led religious movements; the rights of gay and lesbian people to exist; and the temperance plan to outlaw alcohol as a scourge whose victims were most often women and children abused by violent men.

By the early 1900s, tea rooms had become places where women could gather to discuss politics, including the organization of marches and demonstrations that would win them enfranchisement -- liberation from second class citizenship -- and female suffrage -- the right of women to vote. People who advocate for enfranchisement are called suffragists, but in 1906, a British reporter used the word “suffragette” to mock those who were fighting for women's right to vote. he word was almost immediately claimed by female suffragists, and what started as a put-down became a self-identification proudly adopted.

The Suffrage Tea Room, Dublin, Ireland, advertisement.

The struggle for female suffrage was a worldwide movement. It did not succeed everywhere at the same time, but by the early 1920s, women in the English-speaking countries had achieved enfranchisement. However, the movement did not end when the suffragettes won the right to vote. Other antiquated laws -- forbidding women to inherit property, to open a bank account without a male co-signatory, to obtain a line of credit for a business, to sign a lease, or obtain a safe method of birth control -- were still on the books, and women fought on, overturning sexist laws and establishing themselves as full members of society, one right at a time.

The tea room movement, growing out of the ambitions of women to achieve full citizenship, sprang up in hundreds of cities and towns, where women established their own eateries, often enhanced by the side-sale of antiques, handicrafts, and house-made specialty foods. It was guided by women who had entered the then-new field of home economics, women who were advocating for traditional female tasks such as cooking, laundering, childcare, vegetable gardening, and keeping poultry, to be placed on an equal status -- and to return ab equal income -- as the trades which at the time were restricted to men only.

The Tea Room Magazine, March, 1924.

The Tea Room Magazine, published in San Francisco during the early 1920s, , carried articles about the tea room movement from both a social and a business perspective, showcasing successful woman-run tea rooms, demonstrating how the study of home economics could fit a woman for a career as an entrepreneur in the food service field, and encouraging the sale of side-lines in novelty goods for those tea rooms that catered to the growing trade in automobile tourists.

The Ware School of Tea Room Management 15-lesson course, New York City, 1927.

The Ware School of Tea Room Management, founded in New York in the late 1920s, published a complete 15-course curriculum on how to succees as a tea room proprietor, The course taught prospective female entrepreneurs how to pick a tea room location, how to decorate the theme of the interior, what foods to offer, how to design business cards and menus, how to select employees, how to purchase dining room furniture and kitchen equipment, and how to order and store foods in wholesale quantities. My copies of these Ware course booklets belonged to M. P. Mason, who made notes in a very neat pencil hand, among other things selecting Maddock China as the "Best" and Syracuse China as the "Next Best" choice for her tea room.

Tea Room Brand Sweet Mixed Pickles label, 1920s, Fame Canning Company, Chicago, Illinois.

As tea rooms became an established form of eatery, joining the old traditional venues such as taverns, bars, inns, and hotel dining rooms, a range of service-providers sprang up around them. There were tea room advertising matchbooks and tea room business cards and advertisements and even Tea Room Sweet Mixed Pickles, just right for the preparation of house-made tuna salad sandwiches.

And, strangest of all, at least from our 21st century perspective, there were specially branded and individually wrapped tea room sugar cubes, for those tea shop owners who wanted to make a really sweet impression on their customers.

Private-labeled sugar cube for the Devon Gables Tea Room in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1930s.

catherine yronwode
curator, historian, and docent
The Mystic Tea Room

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