America’s Forgotten Tea Room Filling Stations

In the event you occurred to be touring from Washington, D.C. to Richmond, Virginia in 1935, you’d possible end up cruising down Route 1, the forebear of Interstate 95. With the Nice Despair receding in your rearview mirror, the journey is de facto an excuse to place some miles in your new Plymouth PE Deluxe, identical to the one Chrysler confirmed off at Chicago’s Century of Progress exposition. Vehicles of the period common about 14 mpg, however 20 miles out, you discover you’re operating low on gasoline, round Ashland, a Nineteenth-century resort city that’s dwelling to Randolph-Macon Faculty. The automobile isn’t the one one on empty; your driving celebration is famished too. Simply previous Route 54, you see an Esso gasoline station signal and pull into Ella Cinders Tea Room, possible named for the newspaper caricature launched 10 years earlier. Fortunate for you, it’s Sunday, when the restaurant gives 75-cent dinners of fried rooster or Smithfield ham.

For half a century starting across the 1910s, tea rooms popped up throughout America on the shoulders of the nation’s quickly increasing roadways. When the Virginia Common Meeting included the 110-mile stretch of Route 1 between Richmond and Washington (then referred to as the Richmond-Washington Freeway) in the first state highway system in 1918, a lot of it was nonetheless gravel and soil, and when it rained, horses must pull automobiles via the mud. However the State Freeway Fee (with assist from prisoners sentenced to onerous labor on Virginia’s convict road force) absolutely paved Route 1 by 1927 and widened it to 4 lanes within the early Nineteen Thirties, simply as registered motor autos in Virginia approached half one million — bringing loads of enterprise to Ella Cinders’ gasoline pumps and restaurant.

Tea rooms declared themselves with roadside indicators, marketed in early guidebooks, and sometimes employed eye-catching mimetic designs like a giant steam-spouting rooftop coffee pot. A few of these eating places additionally operated as inns or provided outside sleeping porches within the summers. Many bought folksy dwelling decor and souvenirs, too. There have been tea rooms at varied value ranges — “Have a look at the costs and watch the Fords go by,” wrote one buyer in an early visitor ebook — although not all welcomed any traveler. Black motorists, excluded from segregated consuming locations, had been compelled to depend on guides just like the Inexperienced E book, which marketed hospitable tea rooms run by Black proprietors, like Bagley’s in Sheepshead Bay, New York, and the Black Magnificence Tea Room in Mount Olive, North Carolina.

An old postcard for Ella Cinders Tea Room.

The Ella Cinders Tea Room was possible named after a preferred caricature of the Nineteen Twenties.
The Ashland Museum

Among the many many flavors of tea room, essentially the most handy to drivers of the period was the mixture tea room and gasoline station, like Ella Cinders. By the early 1900s, gasoline pumps grew to become a brand new moneymaker for small companies. Quite a few firms had turned Fort Wayne, Indiana, into the gas pump capital of the world, largely supplying pumps to normal and {hardware} shops earlier than devoted filling stations grew to become the norm. Different roadside companies snapped up pumps too, and shortly tea room filling stations might be discovered between main hub cities from Kentucky to Maine, Missouri to Alberta, lengthy earlier than any trendy conception of the gasoline station as a culinary vacation spot. Swan’s Service Station and Canary Tea Room in Pembroke, New Hampshire, served waffles and Sunday specials of lobster and steak. On the Inexperienced Shutter Tea Room in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, drivers may take pleasure in a luxurious club sandwich. Different fancifully named examples included the Gypsy Tea Room and Fuel Station, Walker’s Jack O’Lantern Log Cabin Tea Room and Service Station, the Bungalow Tea Room, the Hen of Paradise Tea Room, and the Chase-Em-In Tea Room.

Solely not often did any of those truly serve tea.

“‘Tea room’ is a considerably complicated identify for these locations,” says Jan Whitaker, restaurant historian and creator of Tea on the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social Historical past of the Tea Room Craze in America. These eateries would extra possible serve lunch and dinner than the European-style midafternoon snack. They could serve lobster and fried clams by the ocean, and barbecue within the Midwest. Desserts had been prime sellers, particularly ice cream, as soon as electrical energy and refrigeration grew to become widespread. Within the Nineteen Thirties, The Alamo tea room in Moberly, Missouri, served four-course Thanksgiving dinners, entertained dancers with a stay band (“No Cowl Cost — No Stags” learn one advert), and threw well-liked New 12 months’s Eve events.

“There was little or no cash to be made in afternoon tea,” Whitaker explains. “What ‘tea room’ actually conveyed is: Ladies are welcome right here.”

An old building with a kettle-shaped rooftop.

The Espresso Pot restaurant in Roanoke, Virginia, lured “autoists” with options like a large rooftop kettle.
Kipp Teague

The blue ridge tea room.

Tea rooms additionally doubled as eating places, relaxation stops, and inns in rural areas just like the Blue Ridge in Appalachia.
Common Pictures Group through Getty Pictures


“Earlier than the rise of tea rooms on this nation, the world of eating places consisted of motels, bar-restaurants, and working-class saloons. These had been largely male preserves, and primarily solely the finer eating places reserved small, personal eating rooms for feminine shoppers,” writes Cynthia Brandimarte, previously of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Division, in her Winterthur Portfolio essay, “To Make the Whole World Homelike: Gender, Space, and America’s Tea Room Movement.”

Taking inspiration from a European development, tea rooms started popping up throughout American cities within the 1910s and ’20s, creating social areas for girls and serving the nation’s rising demographic of working girls. Then got here Prohibition, which took a toll on masculine consuming domains that made most of their cash off booze, even because it buoyed purveyors of nonalcoholic drinks, like soda fountains and cafeterias. Tea rooms served teetotaling clients of each genders, however they had been particularly interesting to girls who’d campaigned for temperance.

Simply as tea rooms had been taking off within the huge cities, the nation witnessed the lightning-fast evolution of the auto from a curiosity to a staple of middle-class life. Between 1911 and 1925, the number of cars in the world jumped from about 600,000 to 17.5 million. An increasing number of, these automobiles had been ferrying, or being pushed by, girls — girls who, in an period the place they had been usually not welcome in restaurant eating rooms with out the presence of a person, wanted a spot to cease and eat.

a vintage photograph of women in chairs learning to cook.

Members of the Greenwich Village Follies on the Mary Ryan Tea Room in Greenwich Village, New York in 1925
Getty Pictures

In accordance with historian Margaret Walsh of the College of Nottingham, within the earliest days of automotives, there have been actual questions on how gender roles would map onto automobile use. Past a number of well-known pioneers like Emily Publish and Edith Wharton, it was unclear to producers whether or not girls would interact with soiled, hand-cranked automobiles in any respect. Males like C.H. Claudy, automotive columnist for Lady’s House Companion, argued that slower, cleaner electrical automobiles had been higher match for girls. In 1907 he described the electrical automobile as a “trendy child carriage,” a machine a girl “can run herself, with no lack of dignity, for making calls, for purchasing, for a pleasurable journey, for the paying again of some small social debt.”

However makers of gas-powered automobiles had a vested curiosity in making them extra interesting to feminine clients. After self-starters unfold within the Nineteen Twenties, Common Motors launched the thought of the two-car household in 1929, implying the corporate believed girls ought to have their very own automobiles. “Rural girls, particularly, welcomed the potential of relieving their isolation by driving into city to buy, to promote their farm produce, or to attend farm golf equipment,” Walsh writes. “Being extra accustomed to groups and buggies, they had been much less daunted by the prospect of driving than their city counterparts, who had been extra used to strolling or taking public transit.”

Impressed by the tea room development of the large cities, rural entrepreneurs started making use of the time period tea room to their very own companies — a lot of them gasoline stations — in hopes of capturing the brand new inflow of so-called city “autoists” who spent summer season weekends driving across the countryside searching for antiques or touring to resort cities. Many male clients loved meals at tea rooms (one tea room even provided a particular meal service for male chauffeurs), however the tea room branding would assist herald blended events. “Eating places that had been related to gasoline stations might be crummy. Calling it a tea room urged it was higher than common,” Whitaker says. “There have been numerous tough, soiled locations. Ladies, particularly in the event that they had been center class and had a automobile, they only wouldn’t tolerate a unclean lunchroom.”

To persuade motorists they had been good, cozy locations to eat, proprietors made their tea rooms appear to be houses, usually changing previous homes and different residential buildings. They deployed roaring hearths, mantels adorned with handicrafts and pottery, oak furnishings, handwoven desk runners and rag rugs, and Arts and Crafts-style decorations — even promoting items of decor as souvenirs proper out from below friends.

This home environment facilitated arguably essentially the most subversive factor about these companies: They didn’t simply cater to girls, however had been usually run by girls, too. Whether or not they had been wives searching for further revenue, faculty academics on summer season break, or church members elevating funds, rural girls used tea rooms as uncommon avenues of financial alternative. Whitaker says it’s unlikely that many, if any, feminine tea room proprietors operated the gasoline pumps on their very own, however they might work alongside husbands, male family members, and staff.

The tea room’s homey disguise helped these girls meet cultural expectations that they continue to be within the home sphere, simply as Mobil and Shell designed gasoline stations that mimicked residential buildings as a way to mix in with their environment (whether or not that was a bungalow, ranch, or Tudor revival). Standard girls’s magazines like Good Housekeeping, Home Stunning, and Lady’s House Companion coached girls in every single place throughout the cultural-commercial tightrope. They acted as economics textbooks, offering steerage on negotiating leases, calculating capital, and managing kitchen workers.

A vintage photograph of an old building with a fuel pump.

Companies throughout rural America started including gas pumps for the growing variety of “autoists” hitting the roads.
Guilford Historical Society

An advertisement for Willys–Overland featuring a two-page illustration of a driving party in the country

City elites frequently escaped the bustle of cities through leisurely drives via the countryside.
From the collections of The Henry Ford

Some magazines particularly focused rural readers, like one 1922 Lady’s House Companion piece titled, “Do You Own a Barn, an Old Mill or a Tumble Down House?” that inspired girls to transform rundown nation buildings into tea rooms. Worn-out rural constructions not solely offered low-cost lodging to fledgling companies; in addition they performed into a bigger cultural yearning for bucolic fantasy.

The country, old school dwelling was like catnip to pearl-clutching proponents of the trending “Nation Life” motion, who feared the destruction of the standard dwelling setting in cities (ever since Fashionable Instances there’s been a eager for “easier instances”). Reformers — together with President Theodore Roosevelt, who convened a fee on the topic — hoped that enhancing rural life would hold nation people from abandoning rural drudgery for the large cities. Nation-lifers had been comfortable to throw a couple of dollars towards “yokel” entrepreneurs operating tea rooms to maintain them from deserting the heartland — so these enterprise homeowners performed up the nation homemaker act to usher in enterprise. As another Woman’s Home Companion article in 1922 defined, “The extra a tea home can absent itself from a business and greedy environment — that ‘we-want-nothing-from-you-but-money’ spirit — the extra profitable a basis will it construct for itself.”

Whereas quaint fantasies might sound antithetical to progressive automotive developments, many within the Nation Life motion supported modernizing roads to maintain nation people comfortable. Reformers labored in parallel with the auto fans of the Good Roads motion who lobbied for increasing the highway community. Tea rooms appealed to each efforts, revitalizing rundown nation buildings, producing financial alternative, and provoking metropolis guests with romantic visions of homespun nation life.

Ye Green Lantern Shoppe in Gorham, Maine, for example, marketed “rustic shelters wherein to relaxation and lunch,” along with tea room refreshments and vehicle provides, whereas Ye Olde Frequent Tea Room in Lancaster, Massachusetts, provided “18 acres of land reserved for tenting and parking,” a “Gulf refining firm filling station,” and “Supreme oil and provides,” ending off the advert noting in folksy twang, “home open the 12 months ‘spherical.”

The exterior of the Half-Moon tea room.

The Half-Moon Tea Room and pump station in Lake Winnipesaukee added a restaurant, snack bar, bowling alley, and cabins.
weirsbeach.com


City tea rooms grew to become stale throughout the late ’50s, unable to draw youthful crowds. Whilst post-war America grew to become a playground for roadsters, rural tea rooms light away together with their city counterparts. They ceded their clients to streamlined fast-food chains like McDonald’s and A&W, which may sustain with the tempo of recent vacationers. Apart from uncommon examples like The Coffee Pot in Roanoke, Virginia, which survived by remodeling right into a roadhouse (and music venue that’s seen the likes of Willie Nelson), filling station tea rooms disappeared too. Over time the buildings fell prey to pure disasters, disuse, and financial turnover. Now there’s little proof of their existence past a number of weathered photographs.

As we speak’s American tea rooms largely take inspiration from a fantasy of British aristocracy, serving afternoon scones and sweets in posh environments. The distinctive American tea room custom of the ’20s and ’30s, with fried rooster dinners, sleeping porches, and gasoline pumps, appears weird now. Just like the automobiles they serviced, tea room filling stations weren’t neat, however they had been backdrops for the interval’s turbulent evolution of culinary and cultural norms.

In some methods these areas remained unique, with segregation and sophistication figuring out the place some clients may and couldn’t eat. However in different methods tea room filling stations had been locations of cultural trade, stuffed with Walt Whitman-esque contradictions: trendy and quaint, masculine and female, quick and sluggish, enterprise and residential, rural and concrete. They invited drivers to hit the highway, offered probabilities for girls to dine and work alongside males, and helped the American tradition pace up — satirically, making their very own choices appear outdated, even absurd in a contemporary, cell tradition. They created calls for that may be their undoing.

Not lengthy after your cease for gasoline in Ashland, Virginia, in 1935, the Ella Cinders Tea Room would start to float away from its authentic idea. A postcard in 1947 reveals the tea room had nixed the gasoline pumps (or no less than stopped promoting them). Seems that was the improper path to go. Someday later, the constructing was torn down, and right this moment the positioning is an AutoZone. It doesn’t serve tea.

Reality checked by Kelsey Lannin


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