Category Archives: women

The up-and-down life of a restaurant owner

The model tea room proprietor has generally been portrayed as a woman of taste and refinement who has a heightened aesthetic sense, is congenial, and knows good food. In short, she closely resembled the ideal of the early 20th-century wife. So it comes as something of a shock to discover a tea room proprietor whose life did not neatly conform to that ideal.

An interesting example of someone who only partially conformed to the ideal was Charleen Baker, proprietor of the Buttercup Hill Tea Room near Fitchburg MA from 1928 to 1943.

She had taste, she was a successful hostess, and she knew good food. Her menu, filled with dishes such as Duck a la King, Sauteed Sweetbreads, and Lobster Newberg, bears that out. Her tea room was recommended by Duncan Hines in the 1937 edition of Adventures in Good Eating.

But how successfully did she personify refinement?

On the one hand, she portrayed herself as a product of a patrician background. In her 1935 cookbook she subtly painted a picture of her life and world that began with childhood cooking lessons from her southern Mammy, Aunt Maria. She explained that her mother had taught her that thin biscuits revealed a family’s “fine lineage,” as was true in her family. Presenting herself as a dutiful young wife, she described how hard she had worked to please her husband, on one occasion baking three different “lemon sponge pies” before she produced one “good enough to set before the king.” And she included a chapter on “Sunday Night Suppers” which assumed that, even in the Depression, the lady of the house had a maid who cooked — and took Sundays off.

Yet – big surprise – I discovered that her “king” had tried to divorce her in 1923, resulting in a sensational headline in the Fitchburg Sentinel as well as the Boston Herald. Her husband also accused her of abandoning their hospitalized son while she vacationed in Florida.

She then filed a reply, producing another zinger headline, “District Attorney Charged With Unfaithfulness In Answer By Wife.” Each charged the other with having multiple partners.

Upon further research I learned that in 1900, far from enjoying a life of leisure and refinement in the South, the 13-year-old Charleen had lived in a miner’s boarding house in Tortilla Flat, Arizona Territory, with her mother and her stepfather (#2 of her mother’s four husbands) who ran the place. Upon her stepfather’s death in 1903, she and her mother moved to Fort Worth TX where they resided in a lodging house run by her mother.

How she made her way from a Texas boarding house to studying voice at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston I don’t know. While in Boston she met her future husband, Emerson, then a Harvard law student. They married in 1907 and settled in the Fitchburg area where Emerson joined his father’s law firm and later the district attorney’s office.

Remarkably, Charleen and Emerson reconciled later in 1923 and he assisted her in enlarging her tea room, which by 1931, when the Early American Room was added, seated nearly 160. The couple’s marriage continued until his premature death in 1934.

Two years before that Charleen had taken over the Green Parrot Tea Room in Winter Park, Florida, redecorating it in blue and orchid and calling it Charleen’s Tea House. Buttercup Hill stayed open from May through October, while Charleen’s in Florida was open the other months.

Due to wartime gasoline rationing that caused a fall off in customers, and to difficulties getting staff, Charleen closed the Buttercup in early 1943. She auctioned off furnishings that included old cradles, antique clocks, hooked rugs, and Currier & Ives prints.

From everything I’ve read about her, Charleen was successful in winning status as an admired figure in Fitchburg society.

After she sold the Buttercup several other owners operated the complex of buildings as a tea room while continuing the practice of serving cocktails that Charleen had begun in 1938. After the WWII the name was changed to Buttercup Hill Steakhouse and Club and it continued into the 1970s.

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Dressing the female server

Clearly restaurant uniforms and costumes serve a variety of practical purposes, especially if they are comfortable, easy to move in, and well supplied with pockets. They mark their wearers as restaurant staff rather than patrons. Some go a step further by carrying out a restaurant’s decor or theme. Still others promise to bring male customers in the door.

Even though they share common characteristics, three types can be distinguished as described above: the functional, the decorative, and the alluring. Each has its own separate history.

Surprisingly, the oldest are alluring costumes that bring customers in the door.

Most restaurant and hotel dining room servers in the 19th century were male. Female servers usually worked in the lower types of eating and drinking places. They were often viewed as women of loose morals if not downright criminals; enticing male patrons as well as taking abuse from them were part of the job.

As early as the 1860s, music halls, also known as concert saloons, began heavily advertising the presence of “pretty waiter girls” whose job was to deliver beer and cocktails to male patrons. Their outfits were referred to as “fantastic,” “with short petticoats,” “microscopic,” or resembling “extremely reduced ballet dress.”

Reformers eventually succeeded in eliminating pretty waiter girls by banning the sale of alcohol in music halls. But the realization that female servers dressed in scanty costumes could attract customers did not disappear. In the mid-1890s, some cafes introduced women dressed in knee-length bloomers that showed off their legs. Although bloomers also had some practical advantages, that was not what attracted crowds of gawking male customers.

Dressing servers as pretty waiter girls continued in the 20th century and right into the present. In the 1930s, drive-ins dressed carhops in drum majorette costumes with shorts and bare midriffs; Playboy bunnies came along in the 1960s, as did topless waitresses and bordello-themed restaurants with servers in red and black corsets; in the 1980s came “breastaurant” chains such as Hooters, with Twin Peaks and Tilted Kilts arriving in the 2000s, all with servers wearing regulation big smiles and low cut tops and short shorts or micro-kilts.

The ability to attract large tips clearly plays a significant role in women’s willingness to perform an almost vaudevillian sexy server role. It was said that the 1860s pretty waiter girls, who enticed patrons to drink heavily, received a portion of the check rather than regular wages. Some 1930s drive-ins paid no wages either, figuring the carhops received generous tips.

About the same time as pretty waiter girls arrived in music halls, “good girls” wearing modest decorative costumes took up their serving trays at fairs to raise money for civil war soldiers. At New York’s fair, for instance, they dressed as Normandy peasants with picturesque caps. It soon became fashionable to dress female servers in costumes such as Martha Washington at a “Boston tea party” or Swiss peasants at an 1876 Centennial Exhibition restaurant named The Dairy.

The popularity of decorative novelty costumes carried over to commercial restaurants such as the tea rooms of the early 20th century where Asian and Colonial motifs were popular. Next it spread to theme restaurants of all kinds and servers could be found wearing togas, grass skirts, kilts, Bavarian dirndls, sarongs, etc., some of these — such as steakhouse wench costumes — revealing as well as decorative.

As far as I can tell, Asian-American women were never hired as servers unless they agreed to work in their “native costumes.” Black women rarely worked as servers in white restaurants, but when they did they often wore Mammy costumes. I can’t decide if it was a step forward or backward when Alice Foote MacDougall hired light-skinned Black women to dress like Italian peasants at Firenze in NYC in the 1920s.

As is true of alluring waitress costumes, decorative costumes never fell completely out of favor and continue in use today.

Fred Harvey, who ran lunch rooms and restaurants for the Santa Fe railroad, introduced functional, standardized uniforms as early as 1883 and a Denver restaurant claimed in 1895 that its unionized “lady waiters” were “dressed in complete uniform, something never before introduced in this country.” But in most eating places women simply wore street clothes such as shirtwaists and long skirts, possibly with a long apron or pinafore, when they served meals. This began to change in the early 20th century, primarily in the better-capitalized, modern restaurant chains.

The spread of standardized uniforms in the teens and twenties represented a significant change. Although the status of waitresses did not rise dramatically, wearing a uniform did add a professional dimension to the job, putting wearers on a par approaching nurses, police, soldiers, and others with authority. A newspaper columnist in 1928 named Mary Marshall observed that wearing uniforms had recently become “a privilege rather than a disgrace” as they were adopted by dentists and doctors, telephone operators, bank tellers, hairdressers, department store saleswomen, and waitresses.

Part of the explanation for standardized waitress uniforms arose from concerns with restaurant cleanliness in the years before WWI. But their adoption was also a sign of a growing restaurant industry looking for legitimacy. The development of functional uniforms occurred as restaurants were run more systematically. Specialized manufacturers and suppliers emerged to furnish restaurants — separate from hotels — with kitchen equipment, furniture, china, linens, uniforms, and food products.

Another significant change in how female servers were dressed began to take place in the 1970s, influenced by the women’s movement. A growing number of Americans expressed dislike of revealing costumes. A restaurant critic focusing on Monterey Jack’s at Rancho Bernardo in California in 1978, for instance, cited the restaurant’s corny decor, “near total disregard for food,” and “exaggerated and tasteless attire” that debased the waitresses.

The tide was definitely turning in the 1980s. In a 1993 article in Gender and Society, author Elaine J. Hall’s research showed that the more “prestigious and trendy” a restaurant was, the more likely all its serving staff, both male and female, would be referred to as waiters and would wear “generic male uniforms.” A unisex uniform is usually composed of dark pants and shirt worn with a vest or a long bistro-type apron. Women servers in restaurants that have adopted unisex uniforms, she noted, see them as “an important aspect of gender equality.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2018

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Find of the day: Aladdin Studio Tiffin Room

It is a rare day when I find a tea room postcard that I don’t already own or that I strongly want to buy. The Aladdin Studio Tiffin Room is an exception, a wonderful discovery.

The story of the Aladdin Studio and its owners, Hattie and Minnie Mooser [pictured seated on the postcard], turns out to be quite fascinating. The senior Moosers, the sisters’ parents, were German Jews who were part of the 1840s-1860s immigration, and who evidently inspired their four children to take up rather daring careers in the entertainment industry.

The San Francisco tea room combined many functions. In the daytime it was a fairly conventional tea room with lunch and afternoon tea, hosting women’s groups, bridal parties, and card parties. Patrons could also have their palms read by a “seeress” named Mme. Rabbas, learn to play mah-jongg, dance, take Charleston and St. Louis Hop lessons, and buy hats, batiks, and lingerie in the gift shop. In the evening, visiting performers from stage and screen offered entertainment or simply gathered there for dinner.

The Aladdin employed African American women cooks and young women from San Francisco’s Asian community as servers. The decor had a Chinese theme with lanterns and dragons, but the cuisine was strictly American. The photo postcard above shows the two sisters ca. 1927/1928, sitting under what I believe was used as the tea room’s “stage.”

It opened on Sutter Street, its main location, in 1920, after having spent several years as part tea room and part children’s theater on Post Street. In 1925 it proclaimed itself a “Nite Club” of the sort found in NYC, Paris, and London, despite the fact that it was Prohibition and no alcoholic beverages were sold, nor even allowed on the premises. Increasing competition with bootleg places was identified as the reason for the Aladdin’s closure in 1929.

Years after its closing, in 1941, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Herb Caen saluted the Aladdin, writing, “When THE spot-around-town for celebrities was the Aladdin Studios run by Hattie and Minnie Mooser, the jernt was for performers and their pals only, and man the shows they used to put on are still being gabbed about.”

Their main attraction was the celebrities who dropped by the Aladdin Studio. Hattie and Minnie were well connected to the entertainment world, since their brother George Mooser, as well as their late brother Leon, were tightly enmeshed in it as producers whose careers were anchored in Shanghai and New York City. In addition to bringing Chinese entertainers to the U.S., the brothers organized Western entertainments, such as circuses, in China. And they also brokered film distribution deals and a lawsuit against piracy in Asia for California motion picture studios.

As a result of their connections – and Hattie’s and Minnie’s skill as hostesses – many show business celebrities visited the Aladdin, among them Houdini, Douglas Fairbanks, and the Marx brothers.

Although the never-married sisters had other occupations to fall back on such as stenography and other secretarial services, they continued serving as hostesses in other clubs after the Aladdin Studio closed, among them the Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park and the Club Trouville at the old Aladdin location. In 1931 they opened a new place, modeled on the Aladdin Studio but called Aladdin Tavern, on Van Ness Avenue. Now in their 50s [(l) Hattie and (r) Minnie in 1936], though still referred to by the columnists as “the delightful Mooser girls,” they could not make a go of it.

In 1965, a reporter found the sisters, now in their 90s, living in Daly City CA and reflecting about their friendship with Harry Houdini.

I’d love to find the Aladdin’s guest book, which Hattie and Minnie claimed contained “the signatures of practically all the ‘tops’ of stage, screen and radio.”

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Filed under alternative restaurants, atmosphere, night clubs, Offbeat places, proprietors & careers, tea shops, women

Americans in Paris: The Chinese Umbrella

“Why do Americans stick to their own kind of food in France?” wondered an American aviator in Paris in 1917.

Good question, given that the Americans he was referring to were able to afford dining in the finest Paris restaurants. And that French cuisine had long enjoyed prestige in large American cities.

Perhaps it was simply longing for home that brought Americans to The Chinese Umbrella in the early 20th century. The Umbrella was a tea room serving American food that was located near the Bon Marché department store on Rue du Bac.

When it opened in 1905 it served only afternoon tea but soon expanded the menu and became a popular lunch spot. Shortly after its debut American newspapers took note and a story traveled around stating boldly that its luncheons “represent the finest cooking that can be obtained in Paris.” Although this seems unjustifiably boastful, The Chinese Umbrella was recommended in Baedeker and other travel guides.

Among its specialties were homey dishes, many associated with the American South where the proprietor’s mother was from. A journalist writing about The Umbrella in 1908 hailed its okra soup, chicken a la king, tomato and cucumber salad, fried hominy, sweet potatoes, roast lamb, corn fritters, cold asparagus, strawberry ice cream, and waffles with maple syrup. He declared, “Not one of these dishes, apart from the cold asparagus, can be had in any of the famous Paris restaurants.” [advertisement from NY Sun, 1907]

The Chinese Umbrella was the creation of Edith Fabris and her younger sisters, born in Shanghai of a father who was a British consul in Tientsin, China. While in China Edith gathered together a collection of Chinese artifacts that included embroidered satin hangings, delicate porcelain, and a four-yard-wide umbrella that formed a ceiling in one room of the restaurant. Her brother, who served with American-English forces to defeat the Boxer Rebellion, “picked up the valuable loot” that formed the tea room’s decorations. “Loot” is the correct word, since the aftermath of the anti-colonial, anti-Christian-missionary uprising has been described as “mad scenes of pillage.” [Douglas Rigby, The American Scholar, 1944]

Perhaps the looted items on display in The Chinese Umbrella explain why China’s ambassador to France who presided over the tea room’s opening was described in one account as seeming “a little bit dubious as to the dignity of the affair.”

Fabris also brought to Paris a recipe for Chinese vegetable curries that she described – with an authenticity claim that may strike us as odd today — as “true English-American colony China curries.” Fabris said that chefs from top Paris restaurants begged for her recipes. When she told them they could not be made without ingredients sent by her brother from China, they came to her tea room to sample curries and try to analyze how they were made.

Although most of the tea room’s customers were apparently American or English it also did a good business selling baked goods such as mincemeat pies, plum puddings, and gingerbread to French families. During World War I Fabris supplied cakes to American soldiers in French hospitals.

At some point the tea room moved to a new location as shown on the blue postcard shown above. I could find no trace of it after 1920.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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No smoking!

Smoking in restaurants has a long history. As does opposition to smoking in restaurants.

In the 19th century there were few eating places that did not sell cigars and host cigar smokers. Having a good supply of fine imported cigars and liquors was the mark of a first-rate tavern or restorator as much as was the cuisine.

But to the anti-drinking forces that began to gather steam in the 1830s, tobacco was the gateway to a life of drinking and dissolution. Moral rot began with children buying candy, extending in youth to a taste for “the fumes of the wine cup and the cigar.”

Still, the allure of the good life was strong. Who wouldn’t want to be one of the “wits, fast men and bloods of the town”? Such persons, said an advertisement for Charley Abel’s in New York in 1852, knew the “difference between Heidsieck and Newark Cider” and could tell “Havana cigars from Down East ‘long nines, at ‘a penny a grab.’”

At the same time, there were some places where the bar was on the ground floor while dining took place on the second floor, with no smoking allowed. The reason for this is unclear but it was clearly not inspired by a moral crusade or health issues. It’s possible that smoking was considered rude and unaesthetic in dining rooms – or offensive to female guests (if they were present). That may also explain why some restaurants had separate smoking rooms for men.

Even though cigarettes outsold cigars beginning in the 1890s, restaurants and lunch counters continued to sell cigars into the mid-20th century [above, 1913]. The National Handbook of Restaurant Data, geared for advertisers, reported in 1935 that 91% of restaurants sold tobacco. But after World War II, casual restaurants were more likely to have a cigarette machine on the premises than an old-style glass counter filled with cigar boxes.

Unlike cigars that patrons often lit up while exiting, cigarettes were smoked at restaurant counters and tables, with the restaurant supplying ashtrays and imprinted matches. In 1923 a Cleveland woman complained, “It is getting so that at almost every lunch table or counter one is liable to be nauseated with cigaret or cigar smoke.” Some eating places, such as Chicago’s Russian Tea Room and Charleston Gardens at B. Altman’s New York store, even went so far as to give complimentary cigarettes to women guests. Lord & Taylor’s Bird-Cage Restaurants in 1940 had individual armchairs with trays “fitted out with a red-tipped cigarette.”

Despite strong disapproval, women began smoking in public around the turn of the century, led by actresses and a vanguard of privileged women used to smoking in Paris. Restaurants catering to the rich and those for the after-theater folks began to allow women to smoke. Soon women had comfortable smoking dens of their very own. Just as male smokers were catered to by 19th-century eating and drinking spots, tea rooms of the early to mid-20th century furnished smoking havens for women.

But when women smoked in popular restaurants they often encountered criticism. I would venture to say that it was women smoking in restaurants that re-energized moralistic objections to smoking and emboldened opponents of smoking in restaurants to speak out. Some comments display a distinct antipathy to women – but also reveal that a wish to contain or eliminate smoke in restaurants pre-dated considerably the organized campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. A reader in Springfield MA, for instance, wrote a letter to a newspaper in 1929 urging restaurants to create non-smoking sections and calling women who smoked “silly” and of low mental capacity.

Anti-smoking continued to be linked to anti-drinking, with twelve states outlawing the sale of cigarettes between 1895 and 1909. According to Eric Burns in The Smoke of the Gods: A Social History of Tobacco, these mostly Midwestern states were also receptive to the temperance movement. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.) campaigned against smoking and in more recent years restaurants branding themselves “Christian” banned the “twin evils” of drinking and smoking.

In 1964, when the U.S. Surgeon General announced that smoking might be harmful to health, anti-smoking groups formed, putting emphasis on corralling smokers in restaurants. By the mid-1970s some restaurants began to experiment with non-smoking sections, the industry much preferring voluntary measures over legislation. Progress to create non-smoking sections and then to eliminate smoking in restaurants completely was spurred on in the 1970s by more stringent Surgeon General warnings, a Civil Aeronautics Board mandate for non-smoking sections on airplanes, and bans on smoking in federal buildings. State actions, particularly the 1975 Minnesota Indoor Clean Air Act that prohibited smoking in restaurants and other public buildings except in designated areas, were influential. Arizona, with its large population of retirees seeking pure air, was also early to pass non-smoking legislation.

Given the historical links between smoking and drinking, it is not surprising that “family restaurants,” many of which sold no beer, wine, or liquor, were among the first to create non-smoking sections. Denny’s announced in 1977 that it would devote 25% of its dining areas to non-smoking. It was not long before Victoria Station, Red Lobster, Bob Evans, and many other chains joined the trend. Big city restaurants, on the other hand, lagged behind. [advertisement, Greensboro NC, 1984]

Numerous restaurant owners who disliked setting off non-smoking sections complained it hurt their business in a number of ways. Non-smokers tended also to be non-drinkers and didn’t come out as much on weekends, thus leaving empty tables in the non-smoking area while the smoking section was full and the restaurant had to turn away impatient patrons. Likewise, the non-smokers had lower check averages. On the plus side, though, they didn’t linger at the table as long.

Today, it might surprise younger people that restaurants were ever popular smoking places.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Reading the tea leaves

Although “gypsy” tea rooms could be found in the 1920s, and occasionally even now, their heyday was in the 1930s Depression.

They represented a degree of degeneration of the tea room concept in that they built their allure on tea leaf reading as much as – or more than — food. The menus in some of them consisted simply of a sandwich, piece of cake, and cup of tea, typically costing 50 cents. A drug store in New Orleans reduced the menu to a toasted sandwich and tea for the low price of 15 cents.

Gypsy tea rooms were often located on the second or third floor of a building, reducing the rent burden. Downtown shopping districts were popular places to attract customers, with about twenty near NYC stores located in the 30s between 6th and 7th Avenues. Los Angeles had a Gypsy Tea Room across the street from Bullock’s department store, while Omaha’s Gypsy Tea Shop, affiliated with another one in Council Bluffs IA, was across from the Brandeis store.

Times were hard, and Gypsy, Mystic, or Egyptian tea rooms, as they were known, offered a diversion from the concerns of the day and a way to prop up tottering businesses.

Usually it was all in fun. Gypsy tea rooms dressed waitresses in peasant costumes with bandana headdresses and adopted brilliant color schemes such as orange and black with yellow candles, and red tables and chairs. Such decor was a formula worked out by a New York City woman who by 1930 had opened 25 such places all over the country. Evidently after opening each one she sold it to a new owner.

Most customers, almost always women, saw the readings as light entertainment suitable for clubs and parties. Sometimes, though, an advertisement suggested that patrons’ reasons for having their tea leaves read were not so happy. A 1930 advertisement for the Mystic Tea Room, in Kansas City MO, asked “Have You Worries? Financial, domestic or otherwise? Our gifted readers will help you solve your problems.”

Many tea leaf readers had names suggesting they were “real gypsies” but that is unlikely, despite the Madame Zitas, Estellas, and Levestas. In fact, the reason that tea rooms advertised free readings was because many states and cities had laws prohibiting payment for fortune telling so as to keep genuine gypsies from settling there. A Texas law of 1909 declared “all companies of Gypsies” who supported themselves by telling fortunes would be punished as vagrants.

New York state passed a law in 1917 that made fortune telling in New York City illegal. In the 1930s police conducted raids of tea rooms advertising tea leaf readings. The raids did little to reduce their ranks and tea rooms continued to announce readings. A “gypsy princess” on site was an undeniable attraction — “Something New, Something Different,” according to an advertisement for Harlem’s Flamingo Grill and Tea Room on 7th Avenue.

In 1936 an attempt was made to organize tea leaf readers but it didn’t seem to amount to much. Members of the National Association of Fortune Tellers were required to be “scientific predictors,” just as good at forecasting as Wall Street brokers. The group’s organizer said she wanted to professionalize fortune telling. Because 32 states had laws against it, she said, tea room readers were forced to work for tips only, to the benefit of tea room owners.

Tea leaf readers seemed to move around quite a bit, perhaps because tea room proprietors wanted to keep things interesting. It was supposed to generate excitement when a “seer” from abroad or a larger city visited a small town tea room. A male clairvoyant such as Pandit Acharjya of Benares, India, was bound to enliven the atmosphere at the Gypsy Tea Room in New Orleans in 1930. And to the River Lane Gardens in Jefferson City MO, even the week-long appearance of “Miss Ann Brim of St. Louis, Famous Reader of Cards and Tea Leaves” was worth billing as a major attraction.

In Boston, the Tremont Tea Room has been doing business in sandwiches and tea leaf readings since 1936. Proving, as if proof is needed, that no “restaurant” concept ever totally dies away.

© Jan Whitaker, 2017

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Tea-less tea rooms

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 genuine 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

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