This presentation is part of Are We There Yet? Preservation of Roadside Architecture & Attractions Symposium, Tulsa, Oklahoma, April 10-12, 2018.
“This is the day of the Tea Room! The automobile has eliminated conditions of time and distance and merry parties of both old and young, in a sensible quest for diversion and fresh air, are whirling through the country from morning until evening.”
As this enthusiastic remark suggests, Americans were getting out, combing the countryside in their new automobiles during the early decades of the twentieth century. This experience was made possible by tandem artifacts: the automobile and the tea room. Journalists celebrated the nation’s new leisure mobility and noted that “’the cup that cheers, daintily served, adds the crowning touch to many an outings, and tea rooms nowadays are almost universally included in our itineraries.”
Tea rooms have attracted limited attention by scholars and researchers during the past several decades. Authors have narrated the trajectory of the tea room, tracing its origins in the U.S. from the late-nineteenth century through its wane in the 1940s. Some published works mention tea rooms as a passing chapter in the history of American foods and focus on recipes and menus. Some studies treat tea rooms as gendered space or as the first step in the feminization of food service in this country. Others address the growing practice of American workers to eat outside both the home and the workplace. Still others describe the stylish interiors of tea rooms. No matter the focus, much of the attention has been on urban tea rooms. Those in cities often are considerably better documented than those in rural areas; some were located in notable buildings and some were even designed by architects.
This paper highlights roadside tea rooms during the 1920s in the wake of Theodore Roosevelt’s Commission on Country Life and in the context of the Country Life Movement, along with the associated Good Roads Movement. In brief, Roosevelt’s Commission sought to bring the benefits of cities to rural communities and bring so-called country values to cities. Good roads were a key part of making this exchange work. Urban travelers exploring the countryside would need refreshments and conveniences, which tea rooms could provide. Thus, improved roads boded well for roadside tea rooms. “When a road becomes paved,” one enthusiast explained, “that road begins to wake up and take a new interest in life, and the field for rural tea houses expands.” These vernacular buildings drew motorists and tourists to the road with a new confidence, and their legacy is important to preserve in America’s landscape heritage.
Cynthia Brandimarte earned a Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She worked with regional historical societies and museums throughout Texas, joining Texas State Parks (TPWD) first as Historian and later as Director of the Cultural Resources Program. She established the new graduate program in Public History at Texas State University and served as its first director until she returned to TPWD as Director of the Historic Sites and Structures Program. She is the author of two award-winning books, Inside Texas: Culture, Identity, and Houses, 1878-1920 and Texas State Parks and the CCC: the Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps. Her articles on Texas history have appeared in the Southwestern Historical Quarterly and Journal of Big Bend Studies and those on American culture in Winterthur Portfolio: A Journal of American Material Culture on whose Editorial Board she formerly served.