Home » Non-Fiction » The Top-Secret Feminist History of Tea Rooms

The Top-Secret Feminist History of Tea Rooms

7 March 2019

From JSTOR Daily:

When you hear the words “tea room,” it’s likely that you immediately think of a Victorian-inspired establishment best suited to special occasions, a place for women in pearls. If you’d lived at the turn of the 20th century in Scotland, or the early 1900s in America, however, it’s likely that you would have a different picture entirely.

If you could travel back to Glasgow in 1878, you’d be just in time to have a bite to eat at Kate Cranston’s newly opened Crown Tea Rooms. Cranston’s brother, Stuart, was a tea retailer who had the brilliant idea of putting up a few tables and chairs and serving tea and light refreshments in his shop three years before the first tea rooms opened. The idea of a place to have a light lunch, alcohol free, caught on in the height of the temperance movement. Cranston’s tea rooms (four in all) became just a few of the new trend, mostly catering light meals to businessmen, well before tea rooms began popping up in department stores and near suburbs. These tea rooms were largely focused on female diners.

. . . .

In America, women were not only ideal tea room consumers, nearly all tea rooms were owned by women. It started small, with mostly middle class women opening up a room in their home or setting up tables in their garden and offering tea and light meals. This phenomenon wasn’t unique to the U.S.: British women served scones, cakes, and tea as a way to make extra money, too. Unlike many occupations, feeding people and presiding as hostesses were accepted ways for women to enter the workforce, since these tasks felt a lot like what they’d been doing all along, without pay.

The historian Jan Whitaker sets the scene in the introduction to her book Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America:

Picture a woman in South Sudbury, Massachusetts, putting down her spoon and bowl and taking off her apron as she hears an approaching car. She opens the front door of her Cape Cod cottage and greets her guests, a group of four youngish Bostonians out for a Sunday spin. After driving exactly twenty-two miles from Boston’s Copley Square on this July day, they are not only hungry, but hot and thirsty, too. They sit down at one of the small tables in her converted living room, scanning the room for antiques and hooked rugs (as they always do when they are in the country)…

They then consult the neatly hand-lettered little menu. Creamed chicken on toast. Nut and jelly sandwich. Pear and ginger salad. Iced tea (or iced coffee), Lemonade, and Grape Juice. A simple scene, yet one that captured the imagination of the American woman as few could. In magazine after magazine, stories about tea rooms like this one created an immense wave of interest in readers who longed to “run a tea room of their very own.”

Link to the rest at JSTOR Daily


One Comments to “The Top-Secret Feminist History of Tea Rooms”

  1. Ooh. Added to my wish list.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.