Afternoon tea is a beloved tradition in Washington, D.C., that offers an excuse to slow down, connect with others and indulge in elegant scones and dainty sandwiches. However, the ritual first gained popularity in the early 20th century as an acceptable way for women to socialize in public without a male escort. At the time, it was considered improper for women to venture out on their own, yet their male contemporaries were free to carouse around town with friends and associates. The first tearooms in the United States played a significant role in transforming women’s role in American society.
It’s said that Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, popularized the practice of afternoon tea time in the 19th century in England because she got hungry between meals. The English had been drinking tea for centuries, but the elite seized on this new ritual of pairing tea with light snacks over meaningful conversations. The most elegant hotels in London followed suit and began serving afternoon tea. By the end of the 19th century, the tradition had crossed the Atlantic, making its way into top hotels in major American cities.
The Willard Hotel in Washington D.C., a storied property that hosted notables like Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill and even Abraham Lincoln, was one of these elite properties. The origins of this legendary hotel began in a series of townhouses that started hosting overnight travelers in 1818; it consolidated into a single grand building in 1858 under the supervision of Willard brothers Joseph and Edwin. The hotel once again underwent an impressive transformation at the turn of the next century when renowned New York architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh created the iconic Beaux-Arts building that still stands today on Pennsylvania Avenue. By the end of the 19th century, The Willard also had a dedicated tearoom that was likely one of the first in the capital.
Although tearooms came to be dominated by a female clientele, they didn’t begin as women-only spaces — both genders relaxed there. They offered a carefree way to interact and make new connections before sitting down to a more formal dinner. “They were a new concept because they were not regular dining rooms,” explains John DeFerrari, author of Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C. “They were special rooms for afternoon tea that were different from a regular restaurant space and had a very specific purpose.” In contrast to the elaborate prix fixe tea service of modern times, the first tearooms like The Willard likely served an a la carte menu, according to the hotel’s marketing manager Janet Scanlon. Toast and mayonnaise-salads were particularly popular, as were chocolates, scones and biscuits.
Women, many of whom felt caged in and confined to their homes due to the cultural mores of the day, flocked to tearooms because traditional restaurants excluded them. At the turn of the 20th century, sophisticated and cosmopolitan women had few options for getting out the house and connecting with others without risking damage to their reputations. Many restaurants refused to serve women at all. “The tearoom craze really highlighted the role of women gaining independence and becoming a force of their own,” DeFerrari says.
The safe environment of the tearoom, combined with further social changes like Prohibition, finally made it socially acceptable for women to go out in public. Women in 1917 accounted for only 20 percent of all restaurant customers, but by the mid-1920s they comprised about 60 percent. By World War II, it was commonplace for women to dine in restaurants— the occasion could be something as casual as grabbing a bite to eat to catch-up with friends. But both tearooms and restaurants also became favorite meeting places for women’s groups and charitable organizations. They regularly held luncheons in these establishments to discuss cultural topics and current events, as well as devise strategies for participating more fully in public life.
As women’s societal roles evolved, so did the tea service at The Willard. It’s now served in Peacock Alley as a classic high tea with a three-tiered tray of savory sandwiches, scones and sweets. Today, the original Women’s Lounge is a meeting space that retains some of the markings of its initial use, complete with a faux fireplace and a color scheme evocative of a cozy living room.
The role that tearooms played in transforming American society remains overlooked, with few people aware of the integral role these spaces played in bringing women together to claim a more public role in society. “[Many people] think it’s some cute little thing on the side there for little old ladies, but it was really more than that,” DeFerrari says, “and it was really an important change and development on how restaurants worked in general.”
Going to tea has the power to bring people together through a relaxing shared experience while also providing cultural insights into the past. Attend afternoon tea at Peacock Alley inside InterContinental The Willard Washington D.C. and participate in this time-honored tradition that helped alter the course of women’s history.