By the early 1920s, America’s tea room craze was on. A triad of cultural forces—women’s rights, automobiles, and Prohibition—had combined to make tea rooms as ubiquitous then as Starbucks is today. The first establishments were cozy little restaurants opened by women for women. They were socially acceptable for a woman to own, and at a time when ladies could be barred from entering a restaurant alone, they were places for unescorted females to dine. Department stores also capitalized on the trend. Filene’s in Boston invited women shoppers to sit a spell in their elegant tea rooms, blissfully apart from the “men’s” restaurants where cigars were sold and smoking was permitted. In the days before the 19th amendment was passed in Congress and ratified by the states, suffrage groups used tea rooms as safe places to gain signers for their petitions.
On the New Hampshire seacoast, the first tea rooms were located in Portsmouth and Newcastle. In 1909 the Portsmouth Herald informed its readers that “Tea rooms are now quite the thing.” Familiar names in Portsmouth were The Colonial, Gray Gables, and The Jarvis, and in Newcastle, the White Cat and Wayside Inn. Farther down the coast in Rye was Virginia’s Tea Room, and at Little Boar’s Head, the exotically named Blue Dragon Tea Room.
Hampton was not far behind, and over the next four decades tea rooms were a common sight at the beach. In 1910 the Hampton Beach Casino opened one of the first tea rooms for which there is a record. Located in a former laughing gallery, the room had been “prettily fitted with Japanese hangings” in the latest fashion, and, just in case the tea thing didn’t pan out, it doubled as an ice cream parlor. Over the next half century at least 14 other tea rooms would operate at the beach, and at least two uptown, in the “village.” Some lasted only a few seasons, while a few survived until the beginning of the fast food era in the 1950s.
-tea rooms in the village-
Stevens Tea Room
Around 1920 Phoebe Campbell Stevens and her husband Charles O. Stevens bought the site of the former Whittier Hotel, just west of their Hotel Echo, at the junction of Lafayette and Winnacunnet roads. In 1922 Phoebe opened a tea room in the building that Charles had built on the site. How long she welcomed patrons to her tea room with her soft Irish brogue is unknown. As a widow in 1934 she leased the property for use as a gas station, and after her death in 1939 the land was purchased by her nephew, Herbert Patterson of Lynn, Massachusetts.
East End Tea Room
In 1925 Eva Kamett Mason, originally from Madison, New Hampshire, opened a tea room in the former school house located at the corner of Locke and Winnacunnet roads, which from 1873 to 1922 had been the East End grammar school. Sitting in desks now redeployed as dining furniture, Eva’s patrons were served a menu of “salads, chicken fried or broiled, clams in all styles, sandwiches, and coffee par excellence,” and, of course, an English Tea from 3-5 p.m.
About 1930 Eva closed the tea room and did business at a dry goods store on Lafayette Road. By 1940 she had relocated to Portsmouth, where she worked as the manager of the Women’s Exchange in that city.
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Palmer’s Tea Room
In 1923 the small restaurant known as Palmer’s Clam Shell began life as a tea room under the ownership of Charles and Ruth (Leavitt) Palmer, both descendants of Hampton’s earliest families. That same year The Hamptons Union reported that “Mrs. Ruth Leavitt Palmer is doing a very thriving business at her tea room at North Beach.” Located opposite the fish houses where Charles was often employed as a fisherman, and renowned for its “home cooking and seafood specialties,” Palmer’s remained in business until 1944.
Acorn Tea Room
In 1926 Helene Pabst Aitken and her husband Eli, a classically trained musician who for 16 summers had played the trombone and bass viol at Hampton Beach with the Charles Higgins Concert Band, bought three house lots on Acorn Road, in Frank Leavitt’s new Greenlands subdivision near Plaice Cove. Although their deed prohibited commercial enterprise on the premises for 20 years, that same year the Aitkens opened the Acorn Tea Room in a cottage on the lot nearest the beach road. No one seems to have minded.
The Aitken’s daughter Elsa Marie, who had served in World War I as a U.S. Navy “Yeomanette,” was the Acorn’s proprietor. Her advertising slogan, “An Artistic Touch to the Surroundings as Well as the Food,” said that this might just be the kind of cozy tea room that ladies read about in magazines.
By 1930, the year Elsa married local milkman Homer Johnson, the Acorn Tea Room was called simply “The Acorn.” On the menu were chicken, steaks, and lobsters, with “tea and bridge parties a specialty.” In later years the Acorn morphed into the Acorn Village and Motel, and although Elsa’s main residence was the Johnson’s Park Avenue homestead, she continued to run the business with her parents.
Both Eli and Elsa died in 1959. He was 93, she was 67. The motel, including the original “Acorn Teahouse” cottage, went on under other management until the 1980s when it was torn down and replaced by the Harbour Pointe condominiums.
-tea rooms at hampton beach-
Cozy Corner Tea Room
For years Thomas and Minnie (Brown) Hobbs of Manchester, New Hampshire had spent their summers at Hampton Beach. In 1908 they made the move permanent, and by 1920 Minnie was the proprietor of the Cozy Corner Tea Room, located on the boulevard between A and B streets. She was admired for her beauty and praised as a “wonderful cook” whose chicken dinners were “famous” with the social clubs that frequented her tea room. She earned a reputation for “endurance and ambition” when she worked out of a tent on the beach after her tea room was destroyed in the fire of 1921. And, as tea rooms were often venues for local women to sell their handcrafted items, Minnie did her part by selling preserved foods and homemade items for the Rockingham County Farm Bureau Women’s Exchange.
In 1922 the Cozy Corner reopened in the new Delta Apartments building at the junction of Ocean Boulevard and Marsh (Ashworth) Avenue.
In 1926 tragedy struck the Hobbs family when Minnie suddenly died. Although the newspapers reported that the culprit was food poisoning, the official cause of death was a cerebral abscess caused by an infection in the 56-year-old woman’s mouth. Thomas ran the tea room for a time, but later acquired other management. The tea room continued under the Cozy Corner name until 1946, when it became the William James Dining Room.
The Chat Tea Room
Opened in 1926, this tearoom was located in Joseph and Clara Dudley’s Hotel and Gift Shop building at the corner of C Street and Ocean Boulevard. Said to have been “one of the Dudley family’s great hobbies,” it became “a business second to none on the beach.” Then in 1931 Clara died and The Chat ceased to be a family hobby. The following year it opened under new management. A 1938 advertising supplement informs us that diners came from places as far away as Fitchburg and Hanover in Massachusetts “to enjoy the special attention of their favorite waitress”—picked from a stock of girls who had been “specially selected for their personality and appearance.” Oh, and the food was really good, too.
In 1947 George and Lea Downer of Southbridge, Massachusetts bought The Chat from George Fostie of Lawrence, and it may be this café that was later known as Lea’s Tea Room. Lucky for the Downers, the tea room survived the 1950 fire—which started in a shed at the rear of the building and eventually destroyed 19 businesses—and was still in business in 1958.
Colonial Inn Tea Room
After 20 years of managing the Hampton Beach Casino and Ocean House Hotel, in 1926 Frank Nason purchased and renovated the Central House on F Street. He fancified the exterior of the new but austere-looking building and rechristened it the Colonial Inn. The Central’s Surfside Café became the Colonial Inn Tea Room, which operated under the name into the 1930s. The Colonial Inn remained in business until 2005, when it became the Boardwalk Inn & Café.
Fairview Tea Room
Around the turn of the 20th century, Lemuel and Abbie Ring of Haverhill, Massachusetts built the Fairview House, a smallish hotel with an attached café. In 1908 they sold it to James and Lucy Garland of Manchester, New Hampshire. The Fairview burned in 1915 and again in 1921, and, like other beach hotels of the era, each time a more substantial building arose from the ashes of its predecessor.
In 1922 Charles F. Butler, the Garland’s son in law, opened the Fairview Tea Room on the north side of the new building (located at the corner of B Street and Ocean Boulevard, this structure is still standing, unfortunately with none of its former charm). As postcards will attest, the tea room was still in business in the 1940s.
Ye Boar’s Head Inn and Tea House
Located on Dumas Avenue on the north side of Boar’s Head, this inn and tea room—the former “Seldom Inn”—opened in 1927 under the ownership of Hylas and Almeria Wheeler. Before coming to Hampton Beach, Hylas had managed the St. James Hotel, his father’s venerable Washington, D.C. hotel, whose golden age had turned to rust by the 1920s and was demolished in 1928 to make way for the construction of Constitution Avenue.
In the early morning hours of January 23, 1929, the Wheeler’s Boar’s Head hotel was also demolished, not by the wrecking ball of progress but by fire. No one was hurt in the conflagration, and fortunately for the rest of the neighborhood, the wind was blowing offshore at the time, sending the flaming embers harmlessly out to sea.
Almost immediately the Wheelers built a larger inn, expanding from four bedrooms to fifteen, and from one dining room to two. “Tea House” was dropped from the name, but English Tea was still a specialty of the inn. Unfortunately, the fire and the Wheelers’ hopes for the future came at the worst possible time. The Wall Street crash and the economic depression that followed meant fewer paying guests, and in 1934 the inn was foreclosed and put to auction. Under new owners the Boar’s Head Inn became one of the most popular eating spots at the beach, but its days were numbered. In 1986 the inn was demolished.
-other beach tea rooms-
Williams Coffee and Tea Room—run by Mary Young Williams of Exeter, New Hampshire, this tea room had been in business on Nudd Avenue, perhaps as early as 1916.
Cutler’s Tea Room—started in 1923 at Cutler’s Sea View on Ocean Boulevard, this tea room seems to have been discontinued after only a few seasons.
Bobbie and Freckles Tea Room—just north of Cutler’s, this was another mid-1920s venture that seems to have had a short life span. Besides tea and “home cooking,” Bobbie and Freckles sold candy, gifts, and embroideries.
Martha’s Tea Room—located near the Dance Carnival at the foot of Boar’s Head, another mid-1920s tea room with a run of only a few seasons.
Mahoney’s Lunch and Tea Room—this venerable boulevard eatery, “As Famous as the Beach Itself,” seems to have come late to the tea room party, advertising its tea room as late at 1948.
The Coffeecupinn Tea Room—opened in 1922 by Canadian immigrant Florence Munsey in her new Janvrin Building, after the fire of 1921 destroyed its predecessor. This tea room seems to have lasted only a few seasons.
The Renwod Tea Room—started in 1932 by brothers Frank and John Downer of Amesbury, Massachusetts. For nearly three decades they had run Downer’s Lunch on Hampton Beach, and their experience surely contributed to this tea room’s relatively long life, as the Renwod was still serving customers when it was destroyed by fire in 1948. (If you haven’t guessed, Renwod is Downer spelled backwards.)
White’s Tea Room Cafe—opened about 1927 by John C. White, the former partner of Joseph Dudley. This tea room was still doing business as of 1932, but the name may have been shortened to White’s Cafe shortly thereafter.
Looking back over the half century in which tea rooms were a common enough dining choice in Hampton and Hampton Beach, it’s clear that these eateries were more about exploiting a fad to turn a profit than immersing customers in a cozy, semi-exclusive, getaway atmosphere. Those that lasted long enough eventually dropped “tea room” from their names and became what they had been all along—small cafes and restaurants that served cheap comfort food. But the idea of the tea room has never exactly gone away, and with today’s fast casual cafés that feature “fully immersive experiences,” the tea room might be poised to make a comeback. Just last year a pink-on-pink Hello Kitty café—a bellwether of the changing food culture if ever there was one—opened in California. And it offers an afternoon tea.
Portions of this article were originally published in the Hampton Union on April 5, 2019.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Hampton History Matters, a collection of new and previously published essays, is available at amazon.com and Marelli’s Market in downtown Hampton. Contact Cheryl at firstname.lastname@example.org or lassitergang.com.