College and high school students of the 20th century led many eating-out trends and customs. Not only did they help make certain foods popular, they also influenced meal habits and adopted frequent restaurant-going as part of their social lives.
Drive-ins, coffee houses, and vegetarian restaurants were some of the types of eating places heavily shaped by student patrons in the middle and later decades of the last century. But a bit earlier, in the early 20th century, the eating places of choice for many college students were tea rooms that attracted women students. Not that men students didn’t also like tea rooms. An example was The Cactus Tea Room, built in 1917 with weird carvings of university types adorning its eaves, and serving both male and female students at the University of Texas in Austin.
Although tea rooms were more likely to be found near residential colleges, high school students also enjoyed them for after-school stops. In the 1920s students at Decatur High School in Decatur GA hung out at the Elite Tea Room, while Haverling High School students in Bath NY gravitated to the Chat-A-Wile Tea Room.
Rather than being stuffy and proper, many tea rooms that catered to students were relaxed and informal. They carried on college traditions such as midnight “spreads,” at which foods pilfered from the school’s dining halls were remade into chafing dish repasts. The feasts were occasions for casual attire, sprawling on the floor, and high spirits at the thought of evading detection while breaking college rules. [shown here is an Oberlin College dorm room spread, 1905]
Tea rooms also carried on the tradition of college dining clubs, which involved groups of friends joining together to hire a local woman to prepare their meals. The clubs adopted humorous names such as Vassar College’s Nine Nimble Nibblers, Grubbers, and Gobbling Goops of the late 19th century.
For example, a popular spot for students from Smith College was the Copper Kettle, which played a role much like the coffee shops of today. Students hung out there, read, chatted, and snacked on popcorn, ice cream, and tea. Its decor was cosy, shabby-chic style with mismatched furniture, wicker lounge chairs, posters, and window seats. Smith students were also enamored of the Rose Tree Inn, where full meals were served in a Bohemian atmosphere created by the intriguing Madame Anna de Naucaze.
Some colleges were almost surrounded by tea rooms. That was true in Western Massachusetts where both Smith College and Mount Holyoke College are located. Northampton, home of Smith College, was described in 1922 as having “more tea-houses than churches.” Not so far away, Mount Holyoke College was also well supplied with tea rooms, among them The Croysdale Inn, The Mary-Elin Tea Shop, and The Art Nook. I find it interesting that the Mary-Elin advertised in 1921 that it would stay open until 10 p.m., which was quite late for a tea room.
Parents did not always approve of their free-wheeling daughters’ behavior. In 1912, a mother wrote a critical article titled “One Disintegrant of Our Home Life,” about the typical college girl who socialized constantly, ignored rules of proper dress, and loved going to “the Green Coffee Pot or the Carnation Tea Urn.” “I tell my husband that college doesn’t breed home-building girls,” she wrote.
Among the most notable changes that tea rooms brought was simply that of providing a welcoming and friendly place for unescorted women to gather. This, of course, encouraged women and girls to spend more time eating away from home.
As for food, apart from popularizing eating cake and ice cream at any time of day or night, tea room food was a departure from typical lunch rooms and restaurants of the early 20th century that served fairly heavy meals based around meat. Although meat was certainly served in tea rooms, patrons also had many other choices. A 1920s menu from The Quinby Inn (shown above) — popular with students at Goucher College near Baltimore — offers Tenderloin Steak and Roast Pork, but also many other choices, with quite a few of them revealing the popularity of sweet food. Among them are 12 desserts, 22 salads, many of which involved mixed fruits and whipped cream, and 22 sandwiches, including Olive & Egg and Sliced Pineapple (no, not together!).
The list of specials clipped onto a 1920s menu from The Mary-Elin Tea Shop near Mount Holyoke College also shows its patrons’ fondness for sweets [thanks to Donna Albino for scans of the menu from her Mount Holyoke College collection].
A number of college women opened tea rooms of their own either as a summer project or after graduation. But that will be another post.
© Jan Whitaker, 2019