Tearooms are romantically portrayed as cozy and pleasant places to relax and enjoy teas with cakes, biscuits and sandwiches. Their mythology is reinforced through evocations of scones and clotted cream. Hidden behind the Olde Worlde facade is a darker history of these unobtrusive locations becoming a force exploited by militants pushing aggressively to undermine the Constitution of the USA and the foundations of British and Canadian law. It helped them succeed in their seventy-year effort. Tea rooms were also a  business fifth column, undermining stable practices of long standing.

There were three thrusts to this Tearoom Subversion:

  1. Use demographic and social shifts to create a new cash economy that bypassed established regulatory and business procedures.
  2. Create an organizational base for mobilizing militants and coopting sympathizers.
  3. Destabilize family life and roles.


The single cause of all this can be summarized in one word:Women.

This opening is phrased flippantly but is entirely serious and accurate. Tearooms played a core role in all the Women’s Rights and Suffragette movements of the 1850s-1920s, freed women to build their own small businesses and provided a space for women to build an identity and action outside the home.

The commercial innovations reached critical mass in Britain and the US in the 1880s and peaked in the 1920s. Business had essentially been closed to women, as were professional jobs. They could not become doctors or lawyers or get college degrees. Even office work was off limits. In Dicken’s Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s clerk was Robert Cratchit, not Roberta, and in Western movies just about every bank cashier, telegraph operator and waiter is male. Tea was associated with women – in their place. That meant at home, as hostesses and in small social gatherings.

The story of radical tearooming begins in the very name of “room.” In the 1680s, the combination of coffee and sugar had created an entirely new type of establishment in Britain: the coffee “house.” It became a public establishment that was a center for business deals – the world’s first and greatest insurance company, Lloyds of London, was founded in a coffee house – for the press, and for political lobbying. It was also entirely masculine; women were legally barred.

Tea took over from coffee as the national drink of choice but there was no tea equivalent of the coffee house. Tea stayed at home. In France, which was earlier than England in tea becoming a favorite of the wealthy, tea salons were elaborate and prestigious and by invitation – in the homes of rich socialites.

Thomas Twining built his reputation through Tom’s coffee house. He never set up a tea house, but opened a store next door. It wasn’t until the 1860s that the first establishments serving just tea began operation. They were given the disarming name of “rooms.”

Women could not run “restaurants” (even as late as the 1910s, many US and UK reports show they could not even get served in them without male accompaniment), apply for business loans, be involved with alcohol sales or intrude on the coffee house culture.

But as mobility and economic growth increased, they could open up a little space in their house or in a rented location. Tea was a natural, familiar and socially acceptable commercial opportunity – just a room.  It was a cash business and needed little capital or inventory. It also attracted a new base of women customers. They could meet in groups and even enter alone. The servers were invariably female, too. It was unthinkable that men should work for a woman boss.  

More and more forces expanded the cracks in the walls that had blocked women in business for so long. The car was one. By 1920, there were eight million in the US. They were mainly used for leisure trips, not for work or commuting. Families on a day out wanted to be able to stop for light refreshments, encouraging the expansion of small women-run businesses in rural tourist areas.

In the US, the Temperance movement boosted tea rooms at the expense of bars. The boom in Home Economics training, the only available career development education for professional women, expanded the range of foods and times of serving: adding breakfast and lunch to afternoon tea. (One review of the tea room boom breathlessly describes the 1920’s as the decade of the salad.)

Creative and outstanding entrepreneurs took the home extension to new levels. Catherine Cranston’s famous Willow Room in Glasgow, Scotland (seen in the banner), has been reconstructed and replicated in museums for her innovation in design and sponsoring of major art nouveau in the architecture and fittings of her tea rooms.

Miss Cranston's Tea House, Glasgow
Miss Cranston’s Tea House, Glasgow

Frances Virginia built a tea establishment that daily served an estimated one percent of Atlanta’s population in the 1920s. She was an exemplary employer, one of the first to offer benefits and pay Afro-American staff on the same basis as whites. She gave away an estimated million dollars in free food during the depression.

A new cliché emerged: A woman’s place is in the tearoom, not the home. For thousands, this translated to running small-scale startups but increasingly it meant using tea as a base for organizing, mobilizing, educating and collaborating for social reform.

It is impossible to write a history of the Women’s Rights movements in the UK and US in which tea is not a dominant running thread. Equally, you could take that thread and follow it to produce a comprehensive history of the movements.

The most noted leaders recognized that the association of tea with women provided a symbolic shared sense of identity plus more tangible advantages for action. The Suffragettes, Women’s Rights, Unionization (women were excluded from membership in craft unions) and related social reform movements of the 18th through early 20th centuries faced a distinct problem: where do women meet to get organized?

Elizabeth Cady Stanton exemplifies both the answer and its impacts. Tea is a constant thread in her narrative, symbolized by her iconic three-foot traveling tea table. She brought this to her gathering together the women who mobilized from all social classes for the convention – a tea event — that resulted in the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of  Sentiments, the opening salvo in the “grand movement” for female suffrage.

It was a small gathering of Stanton and four friends that first created the commitment and agenda for the Seneca convention. She was able to express to them her anger about the social injustices that denied married women as even being a “person” but legally dead, gave them no property rights, and took away all social and financial autonomy.

There had surely been many such complaint sessions but none that immediately and directed led to a self-described ordinary housewife becoming a titanic leader. Well, maybe there was one other of equal import: Penelope Barker’s tea for a larger group of women that led to their creating The Edmonton (Carolina) Tea Party in 1774.

That initiative raised more than eyebrows. A major British newspaper savaged the women in a vicious and oft-reproduced cartoon. Colonial Protests were not new; one organized by women was. It was among the first key initiatives that mobilized women to manage boycotts of British goods, find substitutes – the aptly named Homespun Movement – and compensate for cutoffs in imports.

Barker was clearly conscious of her role: “Maybe it  has been only men who protested the king up to now. That only means we women have taken too long to have let our voices be heard. We are signing our names to a document, not hiding ourselves behind costumes like the way the men in Boston did in their tea party. The British will know who we are.” They did and they weren’t pleased.

Edenton Tea Party

Barker’s tea event presaged Stanton’s but points to just how powerful a subversive weapon tea was to become. The Declaration of Sentiment is an epochal document. It was signed on the table, which was placed at the head of the casket of Susan B. Anthony at her 1906 funeral. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton was joined at her traveller’s table by other tea subversives; Mary Shaw the actress and playwright who used tea and theater to mobilize her community to raise their voices in action, including founding the Gamut Club for them to drop by, fully equipped with gas burners and kitchen; Alva Benton, the rich Vanderbilt family member, employing her wealth very cleverly to provide tea places and events to host sympathizers, activists, donors and allies; and Emma Pankhurst, the British specialist in making sure the press took good photos of Suffragettes chained to railings, and being harassed by the police. She used tea clubs/rooms as guerrilla outposts.

Shaw exploited New York’s urban geography and dynamic life to extend the feminist messages to shop girls and beyond the largely middle class base of the women’s organizations. In London and New York, tea rooms comprised a walking tour of haunts for radical feminists, social activists, actresses, journalists, fund raisers and organizers. They were not always women-only but it was they who set the rules of admission and they who established privacy and autonomy.

There are many parallels between the tactics of civil rights for Afro-Americans and for women and many connections among the leaders. At each of Stanton’s major tea-based initiatives, including the Seneca Declaration, her friend Frederick Douglas was there in full honor and eloquence. The tearooms played a similar role to the churches of Abolitionists and community bases of Martin Luther King’s era of leadership.

Many of the Abolitionists were Suffragettes and also Temperance advocates. (Tea was associated with anti-alcohol social reform) Stanton began as a Quaker Abolitionist. Frederick Douglas was the close friend of both her and Susan B. Anthony.

But there were gaps among the groups and their tactics: middle class white women naturally were drawn to the tea culture versus underprivileged or perhaps more unprivileged who centered more on their churches. Northern feminism at times pushed its own cause at the neglect or downplaying Southern black activism and vice versa. Even Stanton got trapped into trading off Douglas’ mission and her groups’ immediate priorities.

Tea rooms and clubs aren’t landmarks in the anti-slavery movement. But they link all the feminists. British Suffragettes were far more aggressive and confrontational than the more genteel Americans. They tended to use the tea rooms to store their hoards of stones that they used to break windows in their demonstrations. The rooms in turn were the easily recognizable targets for a few flash bombs from feminism’s legion of opponents.

Tea, though, was not as core to Afro-American causes. Only recently have researchers begun to map the tea rooms run by black women. There were very few. The divergence can be illustrated by teaware. Stanton, Parkhurst, Belmont, Susan B. Anthony all launched their own branded designs.

One of the most imaginative and effective tea-rights link was the Pink Teapots marketed by the Famous Five in Canada who spent decades in the early 1900s fighting for women to be legally declared to be “persons.” Can you imagine the MLK teapot or the Thurgood Marshall sugar bowl?


And so ends this far too short summary of fascinating and admirable people, turbulent events, courage and brilliance. 




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  1. Terry Rose Reply

    Wonderful story. I had no idea that all this took place. Thanks! Terry

  2. André Toledo Reply

    Hi Peter,

    Amazing story. I was thinking about something about tea that maybe you can help me to discover.
    Do you know if at the meeting of some political/war/social conflict, the people in charge where drinking tea at the exactly moment they decided to end a war or a conflict, or something.
    It would be nice to know that.

    Many thanks,


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