Before coffee shops, people would meet up with friends in tea rooms – here’s a look back

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Tea rooms yield good returns when they are properly managed (1905)

The Colfax Gazette (Colfax, Wash.) April 07, 1905

A profitable occupation for a woman will be found in conducting a tea room in the right way. These pleasant meeting and gossiping places for friends are already extremely popular, and are becoming more so as women emerge from domestic seclusion.

Whether out for business or pleasure, a lady feels hungry after several hours. To find near at hand a clean, cozy place of refreshment, not so public us a restaurant, not rendered so formidable by imperial and princely waiters as a hotel table — this is something that appeals to the soul of every woman.

At a tea room, too, she can get just what women like — cake, ices, sweets of all kinds, tea biscuit, tea, coffee and chocolate. This menu is far more pleasing to the average feminine palate than are the greasy meats and fiery drinks which the woman sex, at least, appears to be evolving away from.

Tea rooms began in Britain

The tea room is a British institution. In England, until recently, it was not considered the proper thing for a woman to go into a public restaurant and eat. Why it is hard to say. So the tea room was started, first in London, then in other towns.

Tea is as dear as kings and bacon are to the British soul, so tea was the first thing thought of when a room where women might eat was suggested. The idea spread rapidly, for the new woman was stirring very uneasily under the hampering conventionality which shackled her. Paris caught it, too, although it never became so fashionable there as in London, for French women are freer than English ones so far as social customs go.

Vintage postcard - Tea room in Portland Maine

Meantime, the tea room idea reached the United States. In Washington, it is naturally popular. Both men and women friends meet to chat and imbibe Russian tea or whatever is their particular variety.

At least one or two tea rooms would prosper in any American city containing as many as 100,000 inhabitants, or less than that number if the people were of a well to do, leisure class. At the summer resorts, these pleasant establishments would be as popular as in the cities.

Tea rooms: Both baking and banking skills required

A woman desiring to embark in the business should herself understand making all kinds of cakes in the best homemade way.

There is a demand for all, from the slice of pound cake to the crisp cookies. The woman must also have a business head and know how to count up profit and loss. If she is able to make candy, too, so much the better. Homemade sweets are more dainty than those of the average confectioner.

Several ladies might go into partnership in the tea room enterprise, one understanding the business management of the place, the others knowing how to prepare the confections. High coloring and cheap flavors are especially to be avoided in tea room confections.

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The furniture should be very simple and of the bamboo or wicker variety. Heavy effects in upholstery or anything else are to be avoided. All must be light, cheerful and pretty. The front windows should be made particularly inviting to the outside glimpse. Tables large enough, some for a tete-a-tete of two, others for three and four persons, are requisite.

A tea room could be very successfully conducted in connection with a woman’s exchange, where the business experience necessary to operate it is already attained.

Antique photo of afternoon tea

Starting a tea room business

The owner of a large tea room business in London calculates that the gross profit on all cakes sold amounts to 48 percent; on candies, or “sweets,” as the British call them, 70 percent, and on tea, 75 percent. Out of these profits must come the wages of employees, the rent and all other expenses.

Of course some capital is necessary in the beginning — at least $500 even for a very small tea room. The china and linen must be dainty. In leading tea rooms of Paris, Japanese paper napkins are used.

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The best preparatory experience for running a tea room, outside of actual service in such an establishment, is a certain amount of familiarity with the manufacturing confectioner’s trade. In addition to the regular tea room service, it would be easy to conduct a catering business.

Women’s clubs, in many cases, simply order their afternoon tea refreshments from caterers, and a tea room conducted by women would be well patronized on such occasions. Then, too, there are many of homes and afternoons, and even evening receptions, where the woman caterer would be very welcome.

Dawson Hall Tea Room at David S. Lynch Memorial Park, Beverly, Mass

Barbara Dean's Tea Room, Ogunquit, Maine

Vintage postcard - Carolina tea room

Vintage tea room in Georgia
The Georgian Tea Room (1929), in ‘The Old Pink House’ (1771), 23 Abercorn Street, Savannah, Georgia

Ladies: Looking for a business? Why not start a tea room (1897)

The Herald (Los Angeles, California) August 08, 1897

One means of livelihood for the woman of refinement and reduced circumstances

Among the many plans adopted by young women as a means of support, there is one somewhat popular in New York that may be commended as practical. It is nothing more nor less than a tea room.

Not the masquerading restaurant, but an actual tea room where the wearied shopper may go for the rest and refreshment of a cup of tea and a delicate cake, sandwich or ice — nothing more.

There is one such in the heart of the busy shopping district in New York, which might serve as a model. It occupies the first floor of a large old-fashioned dwelling in a street almost wholly given over to business. All the walls are papered in delicate chintz design of large blue flowers on a white ground. The decorations are few and simple, but all in the same harmonious coloring.

In the “back parlor,” which still preserves its outlook over an old-fashioned garden plot with fine trees, there are easy chairs and couches, in summer of cool rattan, in winter of warmer construction.

Why not start a tea room? (1897)

Small tables hold magazines and writing materials, and the customer may have her cup of delicious tea, hot or frappe, served here if she prefer.

The mistress of the establishment, a well-bred, well-dressed woman of thirty-five or six, herself asks what you will have, as if she were hostess and you her guest. Then the neat English maid serves you with quiet celerity in dainty blue and white china.

Of course, such a place does not assume the functions of a cafe but serves admirably in the hours “between meals” when one is in need of refreshment yet does not desire a substantial repast.

The expense of opening and conducting such a room is much less, of course, than if it were on a more extensive scale and also allows its owner to retain her dignity and individuality as the larger cafe could not.

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