If you happened to be traveling from Washington, D.C. to Richmond, Virginia in 1935, you’d likely find yourself cruising down Route 1, the forebear of Interstate 95. With the Great Depression receding in your rearview mirror, the trip is really an excuse to put some miles on your new Plymouth PE Deluxe, just like the one Chrysler showed off at Chicago’s Century of Progress exposition. Cars of the era average about 14 mpg, but 20 miles out, you notice you’re running low on gas, around Ashland, a 19th-century resort town that’s home to Randolph-Macon College. The car isn’t the only one on empty; your driving party is famished too. Just past Route 54, you spot an Esso gas station sign and pull into Ella Cinders Tea Room, likely named for the newspaper comic strip launched 10 years earlier. Lucky for you, it’s Sunday, when the restaurant offers 75-cent dinners of fried chicken or Smithfield ham.
For half a century beginning around the 1910s, tea rooms popped up across America on the shoulders of the nation’s rapidly expanding roadways. When the Virginia General Assembly included the 110-mile stretch of Route 1 between Richmond and Washington (then called the Richmond-Washington Highway) in the first state highway system in 1918, much of it was still gravel and soil, and when it rained, horses would have to pull cars through the mud. But the State Highway Commission (with help from prisoners sentenced to hard labor on Virginia’s convict road force) fully paved Route 1 by 1927 and widened it to four lanes in the early 1930s, just as registered motor vehicles in Virginia approached half a million — bringing plenty of business to Ella Cinders’ gas pumps and restaurant.
Tea rooms declared themselves with roadside signs, advertised in early guidebooks, and occasionally employed eye-catching mimetic designs like a giant steam-spouting rooftop coffee pot. Some of these restaurants also operated as inns or offered outdoor sleeping porches in the summers. Many sold folksy home decor and souvenirs, too. There were tea rooms at various price levels — “Look at the prices and watch the Fords go by,” wrote one customer in an early guest book — though not all welcomed any traveler. Black motorists, excluded from segregated eating places, were forced to rely on guides like the Green Book, which advertised hospitable tea rooms run by Black proprietors, like Bagley’s in Sheepshead Bay, New York, and the Black Beauty Tea Room in Mount Olive, North Carolina.
Among the many flavors of tea room, the most convenient to drivers of the era was the combination tea room and gas station, like Ella Cinders. By the early 1900s, gas pumps became a new moneymaker for small businesses. A number of companies had turned Fort Wayne, Indiana, into the gas pump capital of the world, mostly supplying pumps to general and hardware stores before dedicated filling stations became the norm. Other roadside businesses snapped up pumps too, and soon tea room filling stations could be found between major hub cities from Kentucky to Maine, Missouri to Alberta, long before any modern conception of the gas station as a culinary destination. Swan’s Service Station and Canary Tea Room in Pembroke, New Hampshire, served waffles and Sunday specials of lobster and steak. At the Green Shutter Tea Room in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, drivers could enjoy a luxurious club sandwich. Other fancifully named examples included the Gypsy Tea Room and Gas Station, Walker’s Jack O’Lantern Log Cabin Tea Room and Service Station, the Bungalow Tea Room, the Bird of Paradise Tea Room, and the Chase-Em-In Tea Room.
Only rarely did any of these actually serve tea.
“‘Tea room’ is a somewhat confusing name for these places,” says Jan Whitaker, restaurant historian and author of Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America. These eateries would more likely serve lunch and dinner than the European-style midafternoon snack. They might serve lobster and fried clams by the ocean, and barbecue in the Midwest. Desserts were top sellers, especially ice cream, once electricity and refrigeration became widespread. In the 1930s, The Alamo tea room in Moberly, Missouri, served four-course Thanksgiving dinners, entertained dancers with a live band (“No Cover Charge — No Stags” read one advert), and threw popular New Year’s Eve parties.
“There was very little money to be made in afternoon tea,” Whitaker explains. “What ‘tea room’ really conveyed is: Women are welcome here.”
“Before the rise of tea rooms in this country, the world of restaurants consisted of hotels, bar-restaurants, and working-class saloons. These were largely male preserves, and primarily only the finer restaurants reserved small, private dining rooms for female clients,” writes Cynthia Brandimarte, formerly of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, in her Winterthur Portfolio essay, “To Make the Whole World Homelike: Gender, Space, and America’s Tea Room Movement.”
Taking inspiration from a European trend, tea rooms began popping up all over American cities in the 1910s and ’20s, creating social spaces for women and serving the nation’s growing demographic of working women. Then came Prohibition, which took a toll on masculine eating domains that made most of their money off booze, even as it buoyed purveyors of nonalcoholic beverages, like soda fountains and cafeterias. Tea rooms served teetotaling customers of both genders, but they were especially appealing to women who’d campaigned for temperance.
Just as tea rooms were taking off in the big cities, the country witnessed the lightning-fast evolution of the automobile 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. More and more, those cars were ferrying, or being driven by, women — women who, in an era where they were often not welcome in restaurant dining rooms without the presence of a man, needed a place to stop and eat.
According to historian Margaret Walsh of the University of Nottingham, in the earliest days of automotives, there were real questions about how gender roles would map onto car use. Beyond a few famous pioneers like Emily Post and Edith Wharton, it was unclear to manufacturers whether women would engage with dirty, hand-cranked cars at all. Men like C.H. Claudy, automotive columnist for Woman’s Home Companion, argued that slower, cleaner electric cars were better fit for women. In 1907 he described the electric car as a “modern baby carriage,” a machine a woman “can run herself, with no loss of dignity, for making calls, for shopping, for a pleasurable ride, for the paying back of some small social debt.”
But makers of gas-powered cars had a vested interest in making them more appealing to female customers. After self-starters spread in the 1920s, General Motors introduced the idea of the two-car family in 1929, implying the company believed women should have their own cars. “Rural women, in particular, welcomed the possibility of relieving their isolation by driving into town to shop, to sell their farm produce, or to attend farm clubs,” Walsh writes. “Being more familiar with teams and buggies, they were less daunted by the prospect of driving than their urban counterparts, who were more used to walking or taking public transit.”
Inspired by the tea room trend of the big cities, rural entrepreneurs began applying the term tea room to their own businesses — many of them gas stations — in hopes of capturing the new influx of so-called urban “autoists” who spent summer weekends driving around the countryside shopping for antiques or traveling to resort towns. Many male customers enjoyed meals at tea rooms (one tea room even offered a special meal service for male chauffeurs), but the tea room branding would help bring in mixed parties. “Restaurants that were associated with gas stations could be crummy. Calling it a tea room suggested it was better than average,” Whitaker says. “There were a lot of rough, dirty places. Women, especially if they were middle class and had a car, they just wouldn’t tolerate a dirty lunchroom.”
To convince motorists they were nice, cozy places to eat, proprietors made their tea rooms look like homes, often converting old houses and other residential buildings. They deployed roaring hearths, mantels decorated with handicrafts and pottery, oak furniture, handwoven table runners and rag rugs, and Arts and Crafts-style decorations — even selling pieces of decor as souvenirs right out from under guests.
This domestic atmosphere facilitated arguably the most subversive thing about these businesses: They didn’t just cater to women, but were often run by women, too. Whether they were wives looking for additional income, school teachers on summer break, or church members raising funds, rural women used tea rooms as rare avenues of economic opportunity. Whitaker says it’s unlikely that many, if any, female tea room proprietors operated the gas pumps on their own, but they could work alongside husbands, male relatives, and employees.
The tea room’s homey disguise helped these women meet cultural expectations that they remain in the domestic sphere, just as Mobil and Shell designed gas stations that mimicked residential buildings in order to blend in with their surroundings (whether that was a bungalow, ranch, or Tudor revival). Popular women’s magazines like Good Housekeeping, House Beautiful, and Woman’s Home Companion coached women everywhere across the cultural-commercial tightrope. They acted as economics textbooks, providing guidance on negotiating leases, calculating capital, and managing kitchen staff.
Some magazines specifically targeted rural readers, like one 1922 Woman’s Home Companion piece titled, “Do You Own a Barn, an Old Mill or a Tumble Down House?” that encouraged women to convert rundown country buildings into tea rooms. Worn-out rural structures not only provided cheap accommodation to fledgling businesses; they also played into a larger cultural craving for bucolic fantasy.
The rustic, old-fashioned home was like catnip to pearl-clutching proponents of the trending “Country Life” movement, who feared the destruction of the traditional home environment in cities (ever since Modern Times there’s been a longing for “simpler times”). Reformers — including President Theodore Roosevelt, who convened a commission on the subject — hoped that improving rural lifestyles would keep country folks from abandoning rural drudgery for the big cities. Country-lifers were happy to throw a few bucks toward “yokel” entrepreneurs running tea rooms to keep them from deserting the heartland — so those business owners played up the country homemaker act to bring in business. As another Woman’s Home Companion article in 1922 explained, “The more a tea house can absent itself from a commercial and grasping atmosphere — that ‘we-want-nothing-from-you-but-money’ spirit — the more successful a foundation will it build for itself.”
While quaint fantasies might seem antithetical to progressive automotive trends, many in the Country Life movement supported modernizing roads to keep country folks happy. Reformers worked in parallel with the auto enthusiasts of the Good Roads movement who lobbied for expanding the road network. Tea rooms appealed to both efforts, revitalizing rundown country buildings, generating economic opportunity, and inspiring city visitors with romantic visions of homespun country life.
Ye Green Lantern Shoppe in Gorham, Maine, for instance, advertised “rustic shelters in which to rest and lunch,” in addition to tea room refreshments and automobile supplies, while Ye Olde Common Tea Room in Lancaster, Massachusetts, offered “18 acres of land reserved for camping and parking,” a “Gulf refining company filling station,” and “Supreme oil and supplies,” finishing off the ad noting in folksy twang, “house open the year ‘round.”
Urban tea rooms became stale during the late ’50s, unable to attract younger crowds. Even as post-war America became a playground for roadsters, rural tea rooms faded away along with their urban counterparts. They ceded their customers to streamlined fast-food chains like McDonald’s and A&W, which could keep up with the pace of modern travelers. Other than rare examples like The Coffee Pot in Roanoke, Virginia, which survived by transforming into a roadhouse (and music venue that’s seen the likes of Willie Nelson), filling station tea rooms disappeared too. Over the years the buildings fell prey to natural disasters, disuse, and economic turnover. Now there’s little evidence of their existence beyond a few weathered photos.
Today’s American tea rooms mostly take inspiration from a fantasy of British aristocracy, serving afternoon scones and sweets in posh environments. The unique American tea room tradition of the ’20s and ’30s, with fried chicken dinners, sleeping porches, and gas pumps, seems bizarre now. Like the cars they serviced, tea room filling stations weren’t neat, but they were backdrops for the period’s turbulent evolution of culinary and cultural norms.
In some ways these spaces remained exclusive, with segregation and class determining where some customers could and couldn’t eat. But in other ways tea room filling stations were places of cultural exchange, full of Walt Whitman-esque contradictions: modern and quaint, masculine and feminine, fast and slow, business and home, rural and urban. They invited drivers to hit the road, provided chances for women to dine and work alongside men, and helped the American culture speed up — ironically, making their own offerings seem outdated, even absurd in a modern, mobile culture. They created demands that would be their undoing.
Not long after your stop for gas in Ashland, Virginia, in 1935, the Ella Cinders Tea Room would begin to drift away from its original concept. A postcard in 1947 shows the tea room had nixed the gas pumps (or at least stopped advertising them). Turns out that was the wrong direction to go. Sometime later, the building was torn down, and today the site is an AutoZone. It doesn’t serve tea.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin