Historic Geneva has two new exhibits this summer: the history of food and drink in Geneva and a celebration of 200 years of Hobart College.
For both exhibits, online newspapers were a good source for local restaurants in the early and mid-20th century. It was interesting to see which restaurants were advertised in the university newspaper, the Herald of Hobart. For about 20 years, there was a succession of tea rooms that attracted students for their business.
American tea rooms in the early 20th century were more about liberation than tea. Restaurants were seen as masculine spaces. Women were often allowed in only in the company of a man, although some had separate dining rooms for ladies. Menus included meat and potatoes, not lighter fare and alcohol, until Prohibition.
Tea rooms offered opportunities for both owners and customers. It was a way for women to start their own businesses. They had been cooking and serving people for free all their lives. The “tea room” signaled to women that it was a safe place to eat without a male companion. This became more important with the popularity of car tourism and women traveling to new cities.
A tea room could be in a woman’s house or in a small building. It was usually decorated in a homey atmosphere with flowers, trinkets, and rugs. Since a proprietor could not make a living from afternoon tea time alone, many served lunch and dinner. Menus included sandwiches, salads, soft drinks, but often no tea.
From 1916 to 1921, the Pulteney Tea Room was at 543 S. Main St., now home to the Geneva History Museum. This is part of the history of the house that we know little about. The tea room was a regular advertiser on the Herald of Hobartstating “We specialize in delicate late-night lunches” from 10 am to 11 pm Lunch applies to any light meal, regardless of the time of day.
the Herald of Hobart reported on various meetings and events held at the Pulteney Tea Room. In May 1916, the Commons Club held an informal evening dance, and in February 1920, the Crescent Club had a Valentine’s Day dance. It is easy to imagine a tea room in the two connected rooms of the house, but it is more difficult to imagine a lot of dancing in a small area.
Ida McGee owned the Pulteney Tea Room and lived there until 1921, when Beverly Chew bought the house. McGee and the tea room moved to 730 S. Main St. until 1930. She stopped advertising in the college newspaper, perhaps because she was in the heart of campus and no longer felt the need.
The Fireside Tea Room at 379 S. Main St. was open in 1922-23. it is the first one Geneva Journal The ad read: “Meals and lunches served a la carte at all times… Home cooking and the best of everything.” A postcard of its interior is a good example of a tea room decor, with rag rugs, an antique spinning wheel, and a china display.
The Fireside was owned by Edithe Armstrong, who lived there. She also had a millinery business, making custom and patterned hats for women. She advertised herself as “a former designer on Fifth Avenue, New York City.” It was not uncommon for women to run a tea room to entice customers to purchase items such as jewelry, antiques, or hats.
Mrs. Ella Lutz’s Tea Room was another short-lived business near the colleges at 67 Hamilton St. It differed from a restaurant in name only, offering lunch, dinner and banquets. It was open until midnight, presumably for students. During the day, it hosted ladies’ luncheons and weddings.
Tea rooms fell out of fashion after World War II. Restaurants became less gender-segregated and women were more independent. Things were also changing at Hobart and William Smith universities. In 1946, Art and Pauline Mearns planned to build a tea room on Pulteney Street as a quiet place for students to meet. It ended up being Twin Oaks Restaurant and Bar, and the rest is history.
Marks is curator of collections at Historic Geneva.