This presentation is part of the Are We There Yet: Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Speaker at the podiium

Cynthia Brandimarte

Cynthia Brandimarte: Thank you. Usually I speak about state parks of the New Deal era, and this symposium has given me an opportunity to take a look at an earlier project but with new eyes. I’m going to talk today about the convergence of automobiles, of roads, of early tourism and tea rooms. Tea rooms allowed neophyte travelers just after World War I, to explore the countryside in comfort and with great confidence. In the past several decades tea rooms have interested a few scholars and a few have actually looked and studied them but they’ve done so from the point of view of what their menu is. You know food ways is a great historical inquiry these days and menus, food ways, that sort of thing has interested historians as well as gendered space. They’ve been looked at in that way. They’ve been looked at also as the first step in the feminization of the restaurant business. But no matter what the perspective of the inquirer is, they primarily look to urban tea rooms and several years ago I too looked at them, and I viewed them as part home, part business establishments that American women use strategically and creatively to occupy public spaces by extending their domestic talents of cooking, entertaining and decorating.

This year’s conference motivates me to look at tea rooms anew and examine the rural subset of these eateries through the prism of road site architecture. I want to place them in the context of American landscape history and urged for their further identification, interpretation and preservation. The term tea room really covered a diverse range of establishments. They could be in Greenwich Village. They could be in department stores. They could be in the suburbs on main thoroughfares and they could be located on roads connecting rural communities. They described a vast array of places that extended from Maine to California and operated by people who had very little else in common. They served different purposes. Some of them were philanthropic; if a church needed to raise some money, they started a tea room. If a mill went out of business to employ the unemployed young women, a tea room was an option and sometimes it was for the profit of the individual tea room operator.

The stereotype is that only women, upper middle class women dine there but plenty of shop girls and schoolchildren, bridge clubs and yes men dine there as well. They tried in an era of standardization to be unique and they succeeded in many cases. Some restaurants really were called tea rooms. I mean if they were so diverse then why is there even a phrase tea room. Most of them were operated by women, oftentimes two women who sought to combine their individual skills. One individual would be cooking the food and the other one would be serving and hostessing. Many of them were located in standing buildings and so it took the elbow grease of the women to repurpose those interior spaces. And more than any other conventional restaurant, tea rooms and their operators effectively mediated between dining in private and dining in public by applying the rhetoric of domesticity to food eaten away from the home and by creating a public approximation of home environment and home cooking.

Vintage photo of a cozy room with small tables and chairs.

Tea room at Polly’s Place, Colebrook, White Mountains, New Hampshire (Library of Congress).

We know about 20th century tea rooms by virtue of the literature that exists about them. Pick up Good Housekeeping, pickup House Beautiful, The Delineator, the Journal of Home Economics or Country Life in America and you can see from the period of about 1915 to about 1930 an article. During the 1920s, there was even a journal, it was called the Tea room Management and then later the name was changed to Tea room and Gift Shop. Articles stressed that not only were some tea rooms in homes or that they looked like homes but they felt like homes. There were poems, photographs, printed articles that portrayed intimates enjoying refreshments in settings with very cozy furniture, charmingly mismatched ceramics, colorful fabrics and flickering fireplaces.

Tea rooms felt, in short, like homes in a world that was increasingly impersonal. Young women and men had left the farms for cities that could not house them. Immigrants without places to live had arrived in record numbers. Urban dwellers who felt that the cities were uncaring carved out suburbs for themselves near workplaces. In this flux, urban and suburban tea rooms were convivial places for women to gather and countryside tea rooms provided motorists and other travelers with approximations of home.

Now, there’s some consensus on when tea rooms came about. Some scholars believe that it was the mid-19th century in French department stores. Certainly, by the late 19th century as young women were taking, young American women were taking the grand tour they were encouraged in some of the travel literature to go to the ABC teashops in London. That was one of the first teashop chains. It was Aerated Bread Company, you see an image of the interior here, and then they were picked up by the 1880s in large department stores in Chicago and New York.

I want to briefly and superficially identify some of the context in which tea rooms developed whether urban or rural. And one of those is its aristocratic connotations. The other one is just the enthusiasm for all things that were Japanese at this time beginning after the Mikado became very popular in the 1880s and toured around the U.S. But they were also legitimized as businesses that women could undertake because it was a natural extension of hotel keeping. But it was two other contexts that again I’m going to mention briefly and 1920 is the year that’s important to both of them. Women’s suffrage, women’s rights and prohibition. Briefly, from Seneca Falls in 1848 onward to the second half of the 19th century women’s voices rose up for abolition, for temperance, for suffrage. But there were some competing groups, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. But by the end of the 19th century leisured women and social activism broke down some of those barriers, broke down well is it federal or is it local action? What’s really keeping us behind? Is it family responsibilities? Lack of access to the marketplace? Is it our lack of voice in political debates?

But by the late 19th century there was a surge of volunteerism and it brought together activists and all of these members of Women’s Clubs and professional societies and they all came together in the National American Woman Suffrage Association which melded some of those interests and helped vanquish some of those disagreements. The nation’s need for women’s support during World War I, made clear by President Woodrow Wilson, gave women an added leverage and eventually tea rooms and other places and other establishments gave women a place in the marketplace. Prohibition also helped to popularize tea rooms. The 18th Amendment was in place from 1920 to 1933 and prior to prohibition at the turn of the century the world of restaurants really consisted of hotels and bar restaurants and working class saloons. These were largely male preserves and it was the fine hotel that offered a separate dining space for female customers. Receiving most of their profits from liquor sales, restaurant tours of high quality establishments could treat their male patrons to expensive meals served in ample quantities.

But the temperance movement had long advocated alternatives to such restaurants. And when prohibition took effect in 1920 many of those elegant dining places went out of business. So spurred by prohibition and ready to profit were in the wings soda fountains, luncheonettes, cafeterias and tea rooms. Unlike hotel restaurants, which were often expensive and inconvenient, and cafeterias, they lacked charm and any warmth. Tea rooms on the other hand were distinctive and attractive places to eat. As women’s public voice strengthened and prohibition became law, tea rooms rode with a tide.

Now, consider the rural tea room. I’m going to try to give you very briefly some context for that, for the rural tea room. Some of those were roads, automobiles, tourism and the Country Life movement. There was a large system of unimproved roads in the U.S. before 1900, but we know that after the national road was built it was really up to local governments to provide. They had no money either. And so it really took the 1916 Highway Act to get a tax on gasoline in order to fund the improvements. Reba talked a little bit about the number of automobiles and roadways that extended from, that burgeoned after the turn of the century. Here are a couple of graphic illustrations. And of course the Model T. There were about six hundred thousand motor vehicles in 1913 in the world. And by 1925 there were 17 million automobiles registered just in the United States. The Model T was very, very popular. Its high chassis and its cheap price made it a perfect vehicle for farmers and you know the idea was to get the farmers out of the mud.

And as the Model T’s price decreased over time, yes decreased, other car manufacturers came in and stepped into the breach. Driving these vehicles on these improved roads were tourists, who were newly leisured Americans and exercising freedom to enjoy weekend adventures. Antiquing especially in the Northeast and the 1920s saw common culmination of a century long work reduction movement as labor turned to the five-day work workweek and shorter workdays. As organized labor pushed for further reductions, leisure and recreation became public and political issues. Public recreation facilities such as parks and playgrounds, community centers and National Parks also founded in this time, the automobile opened vistas to the newly mobile public.

So enter tea rooms. Tourists, who were venturing outside the city it was said, needed a home, not a hotel. And those individuals who were rushing through the countryside didn’t really need a heavy meal, taking a leisurely pace and a high price. They needed instead delicious vegetables fresh from the garden, cool salads, iced drinks and this is what the wayside tea room affords. In the literature about rural eateries, there was a conflation of roads, automobiles and tea rooms. Commentators often mention the trio in a single breath or in a sentence or two. For example, until the automobile was graduated from the class of luxuries in to that of necessities, tea

Vintage photo of the exterior of a small rural teahouse

The Better ‘Ole Tea Porch, Brookhaven, New York (Library of Congress).

shops were successful only in the large cities. Today they flourish in the smallest burg and flaunt their copper kettles and blue teapots on every broad highway. Improved roads were really good news for the tea room. When a road becomes paved one enthusiast declared, that road begins to wake up and take a new interest in life and the field for the rural teahouses expands. It was if roads married automobiles and together they begat tea rooms.

Contributing to what I’m calling the conflation of roads and vehicles, travel and tea rooms, was a man named Frederick W. Baker. For him the boundaries of roads and motor cars and restaurants was very fluid. In fact, he went from editing the Good Roads Magazine to editing Tea room Management. He began his career at Tea room Management by changing its name to Tea room and Gift Shop. For some tea room patrons the makes and models of the cars parked at a tea room functioned as an index to menu prices and the statuses of the clientele. As one patron, Riley wrote in a tea room guestbook, “look at the prices and watch the Fords go by.”

Some tea rooms especially those featured in House Beautiful subscribe to the philosophy that people who worry about prices really you don’t want them in your tea room. Those in the know really understand that the rural tea room, the season is short and you can’t do excellent food at bargain basement prices. Such comments assured magazine readers that they would be among their equals at the roadside tea room. We can only imagine motorists who decided whether or not to stop at a particular tea room by virtue of what cars were parked outside it, whether they were the Fords, the Rolls Royce’s, whether they avoided one or the other.

Of course, motorists might assign chauffeurs the task of evaluating the tea room and one very clever marketing tea room operator decided that she would make a chauffeur tea, and so a separate space. And so she was able to attract chauffeurs to her place and she said that’s much better than asking the chauffeurs to play Wooden Indian while their employer is teaing. Now tea room fare could refresh the weary traveler but it could also be the enemy of tourism. Yes, the eateries could make the rest part of travel an end in itself. There was such a thing as being too comfortable amid pleasant surroundings and delicious refreshments. More than one observer noted that vacationists would arrive at a scenic or historical destination only to stop and enjoy the tea room hospitality for so long that they missed viewing the sites.

Vintage photo ladies taking tea on the porch of a waterside tea room

The Green Parrot Tea Room and Gift Shop, Naples, Maine (Library of Congress).

Periodicals packaged roads, autos, tourists and tea as opportunities. For the traveler it was a comfortable and healthy excursion. For the tea room owner a profitable business. Others who benefited were the transporters who pushed good roads and automobile manufacturers who wanted to expand their markets. Still others though, perhaps less obvious, had a stake in the success of the roadside tea room and saw its value for farming communities in the villages. These were early 20th century reformers concerned about rural life. They were educators. They were economists. They were teachers and rural sociologists who were variously involved in movement such as Good Roads, City Beautiful and Country Life movements.

I’m going to talk now about the Country Life movement. Now right before Theodore Roosevelt was exiting office, he convened a commission of Country Life and this was about 1909. And within four months this blue ribbon panel was supposed to survey farms and supposed to discuss the current social, economic and educational conditions in the country as a means to remedy deficiencies. They conducted the interviews and they urged locals to have public meetings and the commission again after only four months published the report of the Country Life Commission which was in 1911 and the recommendations in there stood as a road map for the Country Life movement for another a decade or more.

The Country Lifers were fearful that the countryside was losing its population to cities. The commissioners generally agreed that something was deficient in rural life and they wanted the country values to come to the city and the city to take its money out to the country. Bad roads were one thing that stood in the way. So in addition to recommending improved roads they also recommended creating cooperative organizations of farmers to improve their situation, to bolster scientific education of agriculture in rural schools, and they wanted the churches to move away from doctrine to just generally improving community life. Tea rooms appeared to satisfy both sides of the Country Life movement. Those who thought that farms should be operated more as a business and those who thought farm life was filled with routine and drudgery. Excursionists would need a place to stay after all, they reasoned, and what better place than the rural tea room.

That sense of larger purpose infused some of the writing about rural tea rooms. There was an editor by the name of Walter Dyer, who wrote an article, A Community Tea House, a simple clubhouse in villages or real country. One solution to the problem of how to bring new interests and human contact into the life of the farmer’s wife. He described a typical tea room and he said you know you can design a tea room that looks just like this but it needs to have a mission, and that was to bring consumer and producer into the same space. Let’s see, am I out of time?

Now Dyer complained that he only knew one place that fit this bill but actually, the readers of his House Beautiful would have likely known many other places. While not able to improve the lot of farm women through government action, magazine readers may have been motivated to help rural women via influential women’s clubs and urban civic service groups to which they belonged. And certainly the publications on tea rooms describe a number of these tea rooms with a mission.

I want to conclude by suggesting that tea rooms and Country Life had another perhaps more tenuous connection to cultural landscapes. The movement voiced concern about abandoned farms as well as a commitment to land preservation and community preservation. Its desire to reinvigorate country life and to some extent vacant buildings, some of them were historically important, was in the spirit of adaptive reuse or repurposing or reviving. No matter their location, tea rooms and proponents of them often invoked tradition or history as a legitimizing factor. They appropriated colonial revival material clichés preparing simple food and featuring handcrafted gifts. Now I grant that some of the establishments were in fact, built as tea rooms like the one here in Gregoryville Kentucky. But the other one that’s featured is in the Astor Stable, Tally Ho tea room.

Consider two buildings that did not look like homes or had not for some time but were converted into homelike places. One article title kind of sums it up. Do you own a barn, an old mill, or a tumbled down house? They put Montana, an entrepreneur in Montana built her tea room out of a chicken house. Women all over the country transformed abandoned historical buildings into colonial revival tea rooms. This is an example of a couple, one in Ohio, one in Massachusetts. There are ephemeral uses make identification and documentation difficult. For example, some opened only seasonally during the summers and many tea rooms were short lived as evidenced by this. “Don’t get too attached to the place where you like to buy and eat homemade jam and clotted cream. Pass that way a month later and the chances are that a grimy window will hold a sign for rent and only empty screw holes will remain to show where once the inviting tea shop sign hung.”

So it’s a short chapter sometimes in the history of a building such as the Sweat Isley House out of historic New England. It was located on Newbury’s most traveled road. It operated as a tea room during the 1930s to get over the Great Depression. I know of no comprehensive list of historical tea rooms. Certainly, there are city directories, there are travel guides, WPA guidebooks lists some of the places in scenic tourist locations. HABS is another place to look but overall identifying and documenting tea rooms are local and state undertakings that only eventually culminate in a national database. Only three that I’ve located are on the National Register, featured here and here. Okay.

This has been an introduction to tea rooms and a call to arms or a challenge to locate them on the American landscape. Their messages are rich. For they tell us about how Americans embraced the new technology of the automobile. What propelled folks to take to the road, what they enjoyed of the new and what they clung to of the past as they traveled on improved roads and what conveniences made them comfortable and confident as they motored along. Tea rooms remind us that for all those living in 1920s America taking a simple meal on the road was not all that simple a matter. Thank you.

Speaker 1:     OK. We’re going to take time for one question for Cindy.

Speaker 2:  Thanks Cindy. That was really interesting. I did not know anything about tea rooms. I’m wondering when you show the slides with the gentlemen in the dining hall and then you know some of these other women were there any tea rooms for like you know African-American women or were they taking advantage of this?

Cynthia: They were primarily in the kitchen. And Alice McDougal was a very big tea room owner in New York City. And there was a movie loosely based upon her life and, oh God, An Imitation of Life is a movie you might want to look at. There is a gentleman who’s doing a book on Route 66 through Texas, that stretch, and he may have found an African-American tea room. I’m not sure, he’s not sure but I’ve looked in the Green Book and I don’t see any restaurant that is named here but I need to look again. I’ve found no photographs. A lot of times tea rooms morphed into hostess houses during World War One and there were indeed African-American hostess houses and hostess houses were those properties that were on training grounds, training camps and they were places that were gendered that the soldiers could meet their girlfriends, sisters, wives. They were safe places on a training camp. So I think those two are tied but no for the most part it was an African-American cook.


Cynthia Brandimarte earned a Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She worked with regional historical societies and museums throughout Texas, joining Texas State Parks (TPWD) first as Historian and later as Director of the Cultural Resources Program.  She established the new graduate program in Public History at Texas State University and served as its first director until she returned to TPWD as Director of the Historic Sites and Structures Program. She is the author of two award-winning books, Inside Texas: Culture, Identity, and Houses, 1878-1920 and Texas State Parks and the CCC: the Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Her articles on Texas history have appeared in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly and Journal of Big Bend Studies and those on American culture in Winterthur Portfolio:  A Journal of American Material Culture on whose Editorial Board she formerly served.


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