Tearooms thrived during national Prohibition when they didn’t have to compete with eating places serving more spirited beverages. With their delicate china, tiny portions, female clientele – and tea — they had a reputation for being too genteel, too precious, and too proper.
Since the Victorian era, it had been well established that respectable women didn’t drink alcohol, except maybe a little wine at dinner parties in the home. Never in public.
As with anything that is ever so proper, of course, skeptical watchdogs took their posts to keep a close eye on tea rooms from the beginning, not entirely trusting women out on their own. In 1912 the New York Times ran a story in which it was alleged that society women could and did enjoy whiskey, gin, and vodka in six out of eighteen Manhattan tea rooms visited. Though liquor selling was not illegal at this time, the tea rooms were not licensed to sell it. [Pergola Tea Room shown above]
I wonder: Could it be possible that places such as Vanity Fair and Mary Elizabeth’s, both in business in 1912, slipped forbidden drinks to their elite patrons? Perhaps “The Scotch Tea Room” implied a different meaning than I thought.
Some years later, with liquor now illegal, New York City’s law-breaking tea rooms spread across town. To all appearances, though, police were harder on avant-garde “bohemian” tea rooms than they had been on bourgeois society’s unlicensed haunts. In the 1920s, Greenwich Village places such as the Black Parrot, the Blue Bird, and the Witch Cat were easy targets.
New York City was scarcely the only city with liquored-up tea rooms. The Moulin Rouge in Baltimore, the Welcome Tea Room in Long Branch NJ, even the Lady Ann Cavendish Tea Room in the upscale Wilshire District of Los Angeles where society women sipped, were all found serving cocktails.
In 1923 the trade magazine Tea Room and Gift Shop felt compelled to state that although a New Jersey tea room proprietor had recently been fined $1,000 for selling liquor, “the percentage [of tea rooms] doing this is very small – in fact we feel certain that none of the better class are violating the law.” Mostly, but not entirely, true.
Pictured here is former star of the musical theater, May Yohe, in 1926, two years after liquor was found in her Marlow NH tea room, The Blue Diamond. How her fortunes had declined. The tea room was named after the Hope diamond, which she had once possessed (by virtue of marriage).
As the 1920s wore on, many of the tea rooms that were found violating the law seemed to be tea rooms in name only. It certainly sounds suspicious that The Chimney Corner, in Scotch Plains NJ, was destroyed by fire only a few days after its two proprietors – both men – were arrested in a raid. Based on an advertisement in 1921, it may have originally been a legitimate tea room.
Other places, often run and patronized by men, that offered drugs and prostitutes in addition to liquor, were not tea rooms, no matter what they pretended. When the Raritan Township NJ police chief raided the Triangle Tea Room in unincorporated Potters NJ, he found seven male patrons, none drinking tea. When he happened to touch what he thought was a light switch a wall swung open revealing two nude young women who rather unconvincingly claimed to be the proprietors.
At the same time the police chief of Raritan Township was raiding criminally inclined tea rooms, his counterpart in Union Township NJ was investing in one. He was arrested in 1929 and charged with being a partner with two other men in a disorderly house. Called The Blue Lantern (a name which, coincidentally, is in the title of my book), it also provided patrons with liquor and a slot machine.
All in all, it’s not clear that running a tea room actually provided that much cover for illicit activity. Nor did the illegal booze and the raids do much to dent the reputation of tea rooms as feminine spaces where women gathered, played bridge, and ate fancy desserts. Once Prohibition ended in the early 1930s, a tamer form of tea room entertainment, fortune-telling, soared in popularity.
© Jan Whitaker, 2017