Charming Tea Rooms

antique porcelain


A turn-of-the-century cottage industry began with the popularity of the automobile. Roadside charming tea rooms popped up around the countryside serving tea and snacks. These tea rooms remain popular today.





The Road-Side Tea Room

The old white farmhouse, with its guarding elm trees and neatly kept paths bordered with box, stood well back from the road on the crest of a low, steep hill, and was a landmark from the surrounding valleys and even to the foothills beyond. In the days before the Oldsmobile and Model-T trafficked the road, all the farmers rested their horses after the long climb up the hill. Similarly, turn-of-the-century chauffeurs often found that even if the newly popular automobile made the summit, antique car some level of tinkering was necessary before they could speed on to the next village, some five miles away. So, just as the farmers (while resting their horses) would talk with the owner of the nearby farm house, the occupants of the motorcars (while their chauffeurs were making repairs) would ask permission to wander about the farm paths or to relax on the wide front porch. This was the beginning of roadside tea rooms.


antique car


antique car calendarAn early 1900s issue of the ladies' magazine, Harper's Bazaar, tells of the success of a local farm woman and her ingenious idea of a charming tea room to accommodate such visitors traveling on a back country road. One day a party of motorists, whose car refused to climb the last reach of the hill, left it there in the hands of the chauffeur while they made their way to the nearby farmhouse. "May we rest here till our car is ready, and would it be possible for us to have some milk?" asked one of the ladies of the housewife who came out on the porch as she saw the party approaching. "And could you bring it to us out here?" she continued. "We want to enjoy this beautiful view from your porch."  The farm woman bade them be seated on the side-benches of the porch while she went for the milk.  She soon returned, bringing glasses on a tray and the milk in an

porch at a tea room

old-fashioned blue and white china pitcher, and to the excitement of all, a plate of fresh hot gingerbread, more delicious than any city tea rooms. The party of motorists enjoyed the snack, just as the encouraging beep-beep from the automobile announced its readiness to go on; and so, after thanking their hostesses and paying for the tea room refreshments, they sped on their way to tell their different friends of the attractive little farmhouse at the top of the hill where one could have such good things to eat and at the same time enjoy a beautiful view - one of the new roadside tea rooms began.


The experience taught the housewife what could be done, and she quickly recognized the possibilities of making the farmhouse a quaint tea room for passing-by motor parties.  She also decided to make the most of all the china, old furniture, and such things stored in her crowed attic to set up a welcoming sitting room for guests, just as charming as the expensive tea rooms frequented by city residents. It was not long before country tea rooms became well known and largely patronized.

Setting up farmhouse tea rooms became a popular cottage industry for rural women, as the use of motor cars became almost universal. Speeding along through the cool fresh air always whet the appetites of the motorists, making the chance to have a cup of tea at quaint farmhouse tea rooms, rather than at the crowded road house, very tempting.


The first thing needed to begin the endeavor of setting up tea rooms was to have a sign which would attract the attention of the passing motorist. The quaint swinging sign-boards, such as those in front of old taverns and inns, were hung by wrought-iron chains from a bending bough of a tree which stood in front of the house. The lettering upon the board was in the ordinary block letter, but it was the tale it told that caught the eye of the hungry traveler—Tea House.


Next it was important to make ready the best "parlor" for possible guests. First the room was stripped of all unnecessary decorations and knick-knacks. Simple muslin curtains were hung at the windows, and it became a daily practice to open the shutters and windows every morning in order to fill the new tea room with the sunshine and fragrance of fresh air. Artistically placed along the length of the high white mantel shelf was a row of brass candlesticks with pretty yellow and green paper candle-shades, ready to be placed upon the tea tables in the late afternoon if the motorists arrived at the beginning of dusk.


Between the tea rooms parlor windows, shelves of pine were built and painted white. On these were placed all the old china the farmhouse attic afforded; including  numerous pieces of the old blue and white willowware pattern. It was quickly discovered that the motoring customers hailed the chance to find such treasures on their excursions. Harper's Bazaar suggested that when the antiques housewife's own supply of mismatched china was gone, to have their neighbors place upon the tea rooms shelves any china they cared to part with and sell it as they had their own for a small commission. Harper's also proposed that in addition to the old china, mahogany, bits of pewter, books, old prints, and such things could be collected from the farmhouses, and the sale of these could bring all a goodly sum. These country tea rooms became small out-of-the-way antique shops.


The tables and chairs which were already in the room were made to be more in harmony with the new idea of tea rooms by painting them white, except for the old family mahogany pieces. The carpet was taken up and the floor painted a dark gray. Colorful carpet rugs, which were skillfully handcrafted by the farm woman, looked most attractive on the floor; and were also offered for sale to the visiting motorists as in the case of the china. Harper's again suggested that if the daily guests in the tea rooms became too numerous to continue the rug-making herself, the housewife could utilize her neighbors to keep them supplied, and thus a market could be secured for the rug-makers of the community.


The paper on the wall of the tea room had a white ground with stripes of green and yellow flowers; tall green vases were placed here and there on the tables and shelves. These were kept filled with either yellow flowers, such as yellow fleur-de-lis, caryopsis, golden-glow, or yellow daisies. Other times, bunches of box, which were skillfully clipped from some overgrown bushes in the corner of the garden were distributed about the room.



This color scheme for the tea room of green, white, and yellow was to be found on the old sign-board before the house. The board was painted yellow with a white border and the lettering was in green. Harper's advised removing the stove which stood in the parlor and opening up the fireplace so that it would be easy to arrange for a wood fire. Wood fires at roadside tea rooms were one of its real attractions to the wind-chilled traveler.


At first only tea, coffee, chocolate, bread and butter, and milk were kept on hand. The butter was fresh — that is, unsalted — and made every day, and was used to fashion thin bread and butter sandwiches with the crust cut off and cut in a triangle. In the beginning, a greater quantity of milk than anything else was sold; for this they charged five cents a glass. But tea soon became very popular and Harper's suggested offering only the best Ceylon tea, orange pekoe tea, and English breakfast tea. The tea was made ready in little cheesecloth bags which could be dropped into the tea kettle and boiling water poured upon them at a moments notice. This method of preparing tea took little time, and therefore it was always fresh and very satisfactory for tea room patrons. The charge for a pot of tea with cream, sugar, and bread and butter sandwiches for one person was fifteen cents; for two, twenty-five cents. The tea with cups and saucers were brought to the tables on small white enameled trays. These were easily kept clean and did not require tray cloths, which would have been an additional expense. To forestall the expense of laundry work, a supply of Chinese paper napkins was kept on hand in place of the ordinary linen.


It was soon realized that Saturday and Sunday were the best days for motorists visiting tea rooms. For the weekend motorist, it was found profitable to provide a selection of cookies, cake, and hot gingerbread—the charge for the cake was ten cents per person.  It was rather difficult to foresee the number of hungry motorists who would visit these country tea rooms, and by the late afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays the supply sometimes ran short. Furthermore, great care was taken about not preparing too large a quantity if the days were foreseen as stormy. In this way the housewife rarely saw a loss, and the farm tea rooms proved an excellent source of revenue.



The feature of serving tea out-of-doors at roadside tea rooms was also a fine success. The question of tables was at first a difficulty. To have tables at once attractive, yet hardy enough to endure bad weather, seemed impossible at first. Tables light enough in weight and not too expensive, which could be carried in and out of the house at will, were needed. Harper's suggested to have several small tables crafted from two sizes of sugar-barrel tops measuring twenty-four inches in diameter and the next size smaller. The tea room tables were to be painted green and could be easily carried in and out of the house by the handle, which was always found in a sugar-barrel top.  So five or six of these tables were made and kept in the entry out of the reach of bad weather, and were available at any moment when a visiting motorist wished to have tea in the garden rather than in the sitting-room. The cost of each tea-table was less than eighty cents.  Although the side benches on the old porch gave a chance for tea to be served there, more often the green sugar-barrel top tables were carried out on to the lawn under the spreading boughs of the old elms where a number of ordinary garden benches were kept ready for use.


The success of these charming roadside tea rooms was explained by the simple good taste which was exhibited in the preparations—the food was not elaborate, but served with just the touch of daintiness, while the decorations were not pretentious, but reflected a summer picnic atmosphere. Also, a constantly increasing number of motorists were lured to take long rides, both by the better roads which all the States began to provide, and also by the road maps which were issued by various State automobile associations. Harper's told its readers to obtain the road maps that pointed out the main arteries of travel from the great cities and then watch the daily passing of cars to estimate the number of possible customers. The housewife would then be furnished with all the information she needed to convert her farmhouse into one of these attractive automobile tea houses. These quaint farm tea rooms offered a splendid opportunity, with very little outlay of money in the beginning, to establish a successful cottage industry for the early 1900s woman.

IMAGES: Early 1900s motorcar photographs are from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division: LC-USZ62-55132; LC-USZ62-64745, LC-USZ62-55107.