At the start of the Victorian era, there were few public places a polite, decent, respectable woman could venture for refreshment or to meet with women friends. Taverns and pubs and other public spaces were very masculine spaces, and the women who frequented bars were considered less than respectable, while most feminine spaces were in domestic arena. This limited women to visiting other women’s homes.
Then, in 1861, the Aerated Bread Company opened its first Tea Shop in the courtyard of London’s Fenchurch Street Railway Station. The tearoom was a brilliant marketing ploy by the Aerated Bread Company. I’ve found two opposing reasons for why the tearoom was opened. The first one claims that the company was unable to sell its bread through normal retail outlets, so they decided to take it direct to the public.The second story claims the idea for opening the tearoom came from a London-based manageress of the Aerated Bread Company, who had been serving free tea and snacks to customers and saw an opportunity in profit creation and marketing. When there are two conflicting stories, I tend to feel it is probably a combination of both, because real life is never cut and dried. The main thing was that this first Tea Shop the first of many, such as the chain of shops opened by the Aerated Bread Company, and the chain opened as ‘Miss Cranston’s Tea Rooms’ in Scotland. By 1923, the A.B.C. tea shops would number 250, and were situated all over the world including Australia.
I believe the immediate popularity of the tea room was due to its acceptance as the respectable women’s venue, just as the various women’s rights movements were becoming active. Women wanted the freedom to go out sans a male escort. There were ladies toilet facilities on hand, something not available at bars and taverns until after WWII. It was a public space that welcomed women, and it was the patronage of women that made the Tea Shops so successful. The A.B.C. Tea Shops were recommended to delegates of the Congress of the International Council of Women held in London in 1899. As more women moved into the public spaces to socialise and work, the tea shops had an expanding pool of customers.
Many of the A.B.C. Tea Shops were quite elegant, and they were considered a fashionable refreshments during the Victorian era. By the 20th century, their were thousands of tearooms around Britain and the rest of the world, but A.B.C. Tea Shops survived even with all this competition. The chain remained in business until the 1980s, when the chain was taken over by, and then merged with, a much larger corporation.
It seems to me the Industrial Revolution provided many of the forces that worked towards increasing the freedoms available to women … and not just the vote. Tea rooms provided safe public spaces. The invention of the telephone, telegraph and typewriters all created job opportunities for women, as they were employed as staff for all these technologies; women with jobs can achieve financial independence. The bicycle gave women physical freedom.
This taste of freedom seemed to inspire the suffragettes, suffragists and abolitionists of the Victorian Era. These were brave women prepared to die for their cause. When I write about suffragettes in my Steampunk novel, I always try to remember how dedicated and committed these women were to their ideology.