Tea rooms were enormously popular in the first half of the 20th century. Their history is nearly forgotten, but is a fascinating aspect of women's history. Most were owned or managed by women. Almost everyone, from schoolteachers to recent college graduates to homemakers, wanted to run one. Most tea room patrons were also women. In the 1920s, especially, tea rooms became THE fashionable places for women to meet friends in small towns, big cities, and suburbs alike.

The Tarpot tea room, Boothbay Harbor Maine
For a long time I didn't know where the Tarpot was located. But now, thanks to Sarah S. of Maine, I know it was in Boothbay Harbor. Sarah tells me it was in a shipyard (where the tar was probably used in making or repairing ships). So now I know that the big pot on legs near the signboard to the left of the building is indeed a tarpot. Another small iron pot hangs from the corner of the building, near the roofline on the left corner, also a tarpot I'd bet.

Jungle Hotel and Country Club, St. Petersburg
Tea rooms popularized eating outdoors. Hotels in warm climates furnished colorful umbrellas for afternoon tea takers, while roadside cottages set up tables on front porches or under trees. Edna Ferguson’s T House in Magnolia, Mass. advertised in 1923 that it featured “Unusually good home cooking served on shady lawns and piazzas.”

The MacDonald tea room, Salem, Massachusetts
This tea room was at 249 Essex Street, in a long, narrow storefront. It is decorated in a "scenographic" style, mimicking a plaza in Spain. This was a style that was popular in tea rooms around 1930, and was a good way to enliven an uninteresting space. This tea room is the soda-fountain type that became popular in the late 1920s.

The Bird Cage, Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts
Tea room owners had a peculiar fascination with birds and animals, particularly reflected in the names they chose for their businesses. Some examples: Brown Owl, Ragged Robin, Green Pheasant, Gray Lion, Nine Owls, Green Parrot, Blue Horse, Ugly Duckling, Russian Bear, Sea Gull, Cheshire Cat, White Rabbit, Red Squirrel, Blue Parrot, Yellow Cat, Jolly Jay.

Vintage advice ... but still good


(from Tea Room and Cafeteria Management by R. N. Elliott, Little, Brown, & Co., 1927)

-- a common mistake: "underestimating the amount of capital necessary for initial operations"

-- "The ideal size and type of tea room is one which provides seating accommodation for some seventy people..."

-- "The food problem may be succinctly stated thus: everything of superior quality with ingenious variety, skillfully cooked, served promptly and in a pleasing way."

-- "Once a tea room has acquired a reputation for not being first-class it is very difficult, if not impossible, to overcome the handicap."

-- "Experimenting in prices is a very unsafe thing to do."

-- "There never was a business ... where the rule suggested by the phrase 'Survival of the Fittest' applies with such force as in the tea room enterprise."

-- "A good name, in conjunction with a good sign, is a very, very valuable asset."

Selected Works