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Tearooms, “A Very Profitable Undertaking”

While looking for advertisements in back issues of Good Housekeeping from the early 20th century, I ran across two fun articles about businesses for women in the June 1911 issue.

Good Housekeeping, June 1911.

They caught my eye because we have done several posts touching on women in the workforce. Nancy Lovas wrote one looking at WWI and my post on self-help included a snip from a 1922 book The Do’s and Don’ts for Business Women.

The first article supposedly centered on the activities of two unidentified sisters of “mature years” who turned their family farm on a state highway into a roadside teashop. It seems the “opportunity was too pressing” because travelers were already stopping.

At first the sisters served bread and butter and milk, but later they added tea, coffee, chocolate, homemade preserves, sandwiches, cookies, cake, and hot gingerbread. The best breakfast tea was used, and this was served dry in muslin bags, with a pitcher of hot water, so that the guests might make the beverage for themselves. White enameled serving trays and paper napkins were used, so that no table linen was required. (p. 693-94)

Tea house, Vusper Country Club, Tyngsboro, Mass (between 1880 and 1920)
//www.loc.gov/item/00652027/

But their activities didn’t stop there – it evolved into selling antiques:

Any successful venture always opens up various promising leads, and so quite soon the sisters found themselves in the way of doing other profitable business as an incident to the routine business of their tea room. This arose from oft-expressed inquiries, on the part of their guests, for pieces of old furniture and old china. The sisters decided that it was their duty to accept this new opportunity, and so they sold at good prices everything that they could spare from their own furnishings. This seemed to whet the whet the appetites of the visitors, and accordingly the sisters called upon their neighbors. It happened that the neighborhood was rich in pieces of old furniture, china, and pewter, which the owners were glad to sell for a fair price. (p. 694)

Tea at Hostess House, Bain News Service (between ca. 1915 and 1918)
//www.loc.gov/item/2014706340/

After people asked about buying their rag rugs, the sisters found a neighbor who could provide a supply and sold those too! They also made and sold preserves from the fruits grown on the farm.  The author says “Much that these sisters have done is not beyond the power of hundreds of others. Opportunities such as theirs may be found in all of our well-populated states.” (p. 695)

The article features a few interesting pictures – though none directly related to the story. There was one of a colonial mansion in Massachusetts, two were in England (Black Rabbit Tavern near Arundel Castle that I believe may still exist, the other was the Red Lion Inn in Thursley), and one was a tea room in California.  I particularly enjoyed the architectural drawing done by Joy Wheeler Dow of an imagined wayside tavern.

Evelyn Nesbit (standing) in her tea room, 235 West 52 Street, New York (October 30, 1921)
//www.loc.gov/item/2002706192/

The second article was a bit shorter and less colorful and revolved around another anonymous story about a woman opening a tea house in her hometown after a visit to New York.  It ended with the following that I think painted a very particular picture of the day:

The woman who can serve a delicious cup of tea and a perfectly browned piece of toast in attractive surroundings may be assured of the success of her venture, provided she does not go in too deep, and that she maintains the standard set in the beginning. Prices, appointments and menus may vary greatly, according to circumstances and conditions, but whether elaborate or simple, the secret of a successful tea room is daintiness, first in the service, and then in the quality of the food served. (p. 699)

Of course tea rooms weren’t new when these two articles were written. I found two other articles one from 1905 and the other from 1911.  I also found a few books and even a magazine from the 1920’s on this very topic, so maybe these articles were on to something.

Omaha Daily Bee, 16 June 1907.
//chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn99021999/1907-06-16/ed-1/seq-28/

One Comment

  1. Carl Fleischhauer
    January 8, 2019 at 10:45 am

    Thanks for a dandy blog! I wondered if the Evelyn Nesbit in the Underwood and Underwood photo was “the” (notorious) Evelyn Nesbit. The long Wikipedia entry about her (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evelyn_Nesbit) includes this sentence: “In the 1920s, Nesbit briefly became the proprietor of a tearoom located in the West 50s in Manhattan.” How about that?

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