Where Have All the Tea Rooms Gone?

My first visit to a tea room was in London in 1986.  During that trip, I visited as many as I could, from the grand Afternoon Tea hotel experience to the simple, unassuming village repast.  I took what I learned and incorporated it into my business – serving tea to our guests.  They loved it.  And the business flourished.

My next visit to a tea room was in this country, ten years later (I had been busy, very busy).  What I didn’t realize, or perhaps had forgotten, was how much I had enjoyed afternoon tea.  It was relaxing … refreshing … and, yes, even rejuvenating.  I know.  I know.  It’s those three “r’s”, but it really was true.  Was it the tea, the rituals which surround tea, or was it the camaraderie  of being with like-minded friends, sharing food and an experience?  I’m not sure, but, from that moment on, I knew I had found my “happy place”.

An acquaintance soon became a good friend, especially after I found out she and her friends had formed a “tea club”.  Each month they would travel to a different tea room, as a group, and share in the tea experience.  Of course, that didn’t prevent any of them from visiting their local tea rooms at every opportunity.  Immediately, I became a proud member of the tea club.

TEA TIME Magazine

As a group, we’d do our research:  tea magazines, websites, chat groups, word-of-mouth.  We’d be there for the grand opening of the newest tea room, as well as always revisiting past favorites.  There were so many tea rooms to choose from.  We traveled all around New England and then up and down the East Coast.  If the distance was more than 100 miles, we would organize an entire weekend around one or two tea room visits.  The weekends always included staying at a local bed and breakfast, antique shopping and, of course, lots of good food.  Repeat tea room visits ended with our befriending the owners and their staff.  They now becoming “tea friends”.  Our group and tea family grew.

But, no more!

For years, we enjoyed these afternoon tea sojourns … until suddenly … we ran out of tea rooms!  At one time, we could choose from hundreds, now there are perhaps one or two.  I understand tea rooms are, in reality, a restaurant and restaurants are a hard business, a very hard business.  I understand the profit margins are very low.  I understand the owners want to retire.  I understand there’s no interest in the next generation to take over or start up a tea room.  I understand real estate is very expensive.  The reality is I have been a business owner … and I understand.  But, I don’t like it.

Wenham Tea House, Wenham, MA

Did you know tea rooms were the first “women owned” businesses in the U.S.?  At the turn of the century American hotels were mimicking their European counterparts by serving Afternoon Tea in their restaurants, but this was not something a woman could participate in without a male escort.  Unescorted women would not be served.

In the cities and the countryside enterprising women began realizing that women of all classes wanted the ability to socialize outside of the home together, without the required male escort.  They also knew that we were becoming a more mobile and motorized society.  Women in the villages and small towns began turning their front parlors, or shed, or back kitchen into an inviting area where they could serve road-weary travelers a hearty cuppa and something to go along with it.  In the city, middle class women opened their front parlors for other women to gather and enjoy each other’s company without the required ‘man by their side’.  The American tearoom was born.

Tea at Charters Towers, 1880, Courtesy of New Old Stock

These businesses were important.  This was the first opportunity women had to start their own businesses, earning an income, without leaving their homes.  By adding handicrafts and baked goods made by the townspeople, the tearoom also offered a means for others to earn money.  Tea rooms played an important role in our society, our culture and to women.  But now its 2018 and everything is changing.  Why?  Are we all so busy that we haven’t the time or the interest to support this traditional women-owned business?  Are we too sophisticated, or too jaded?  Do we have to be stimulated by something new all the time?  What has happened to the value and importance of traditions?

I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to support your local tea room … woman owned or not.  Small businesses are an important part of our heritage.  Do we really want every shop, restaurant, business in every town to look like the every other shop, restaurant or business?

There are a few tea rooms left around the New England area.  Not many.  I can’t recommend enough that you visit them.  Each is unique, wonderful and an experience you’ll always treasure.  Do it now before they too are gone forever!

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Tea Rooms to Visit in the Greater Boston area
FANCY THAT
WENHAM TEA HOUSE
BOSTON PUBLIC LIBRARY
THE TEA LEAF
THE DUNBAR TEA ROOM
HEATH’S TEA ROOM
COZY TEA CART

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