In 1910 There Were But Three Tea Rooms in the City – Now There are at Least 224 – A Study in the Transmutation of a Residential District.
By Gregory Clark, September 18, 1920.
In 1914 there were, according to a rum-hound of my acquaintance who has turned eminently respectable and sells second-hand motor cars, one hundred and twelve liquor bars in Toronto.
To-day, according to a tea-hound of my acquaintance, there are in Toronto no fewer than two hundred and twenty-four tea rooms of the various types.
What this indicates, I will leave to both the Referendum Committee and the Distillers’ Liberty League. Everyone is entitled to his opinion, however outmoded.
Tea rooms, which now constitute, with the movies the principal downtown diversion of the young, are of quite recent origin in Toronto. As far back as 1910, there were only three in the city.
To-day, there are dozens within a two hundred-yard circle of King and Yonge streets. They are popping up in the semi-business and residential districts. Fine old mansions which you have admired for years as stout homes that have defied the encroachment of business, are unexpectedly sprouting out genteel signs announcing “Tea Shoppes,” with old-fashioned names prefixed, such as Mary Anne, Sarah Louise or Eliza Jane.
There is one on the Humber. There are two away up Yonge street where motorists roam. They are scattered at random all over the city; the sprinkling becoming thickest on Yonge, between Queen and King.
They are of all sizes, shapes and fashions. The oldest of the tea rooms are furnished in the Victorian or side-whisker style of interior decoration. In them, you will find the last relics of horsehair furniture in use. The walls and all other space not needed for actual teaing are covered with brass and copper pots, pans, and old china, including Buddhas and porcelain cats.
Others are done in very modern style; very matter-of-fact chairs and tables, no decoration but wall paper; quite restauranty.
But the latest type of tea room, known as the “Tea Shoppe,” is the one that has sprung up the last year or two in the threatened residential district. These “tea shoppes” are designed to be “homey.” They are quaint, and frankly unmodern. Hence the “shoppe.”
Close by a block or two away, business shouts its conquest. Houses have been altered into stores. On the very street the “tea shoppe” is on, several houses have been secretly taking boarders for ten years past. Within the past year, four of those fine old residences have been unostentatiously remodelled into duplexes. The relentless advance of “business” has put the dent in residential. A “modiste” has placed a modest brass sign, like a doctor’s, on her front door. Another stranger has recently moved into the street and a much larger sign has appeared on her house-front – a French name daring, snappy; with the single word “robes” beneath it.
By these subtle changes does a fine old street move from residential to semi-business.
For, as sure as fate, somebody then opens “tea shoppe.”
Let me escort you to a nice, homey cup of tea into one of these latest tea rooms.
It is not a hundred miles from Bloor and Yonge streets.
On the door of what appears to be la fine old residence of a judge, or retired merchant or some other distinguished citizen hangs a quaint sign in white and gilt with, let us say, the legend: “Ye Maggye McGintye Tea Shoppe.”
There is an iron fence around the lawn and flowers in the borders. On the massive front door is a big brass knocker.
Does one knock or just walk in? While standing in doubt, a watchful lady behind the curtains of the parlor window sees your indecision and hastens to open the door to you.
She is a middle-aged lady of spinsterly bearing. She welcomes with a dignified smile.
Inside, you fear for an awkward moment that you have intruded into a private home. But a glimpse of many little white-covered tables within the dim parlor reassures.
The parlor and dining-room are given over to little tea-tables. Beyond that, the house is left as “homey” as possible. Crowded along the walls are the articles of normal furniture – the 1890 period furniture, red plush covered, bandy-legged, with innumerable scrolls and squiggles. On the walls, sepia prints of deer and pleasant scenes of rivers with spires in the distance. Aye, even to the gummy portraits in oils of the ancestors of the house. Behold, in one corner, a “what-not,” seldom seen but oft referred to; a little three-decked, three-cornered table, with, among other items on it, a pink sea-shell.
Let us sit at one of the tables. We are indeed “homey.” For the first time since childhood, since last you were at Grandmama’s before she gave up her old home, you sit on a horsehair-covered chair, and feel the fine prickle of the hairs working through your clothing. You begin to understand, now, the fashion for heavy broadcloth trousers, crinolines, flounces and bustles which flourished a generation and more ago.
The ladies who wait on you are all middle-aged and “homey.” The dishes are old-fashioned, chipped to a nice degree of antiquity; the menu card, written in quaint, old-fashioned script reads:
“Special blend of Maggye McGintye Tea, 15 cents a pot.
“Toast – 15 cents.
“Cinnamon Toast – 20 cents.
“Sandwiches, pickle, cheese, nut, tongue, ham – 25 cents.
“Maggye McGintye trifle – 25 cents.
“Ice Cream – 20 cents.”
Yes, it is very homey. At all the little tables, people have their backs to you. A soft symphony of talk and dishes fills the house. The ladies-in waiting stalk in and out amongst the tables.
The patrons are mixed. The University is only a couple of blocks away, and there is quite a sprinkling of Varsity people preparing for the opening, talking enthusiastically about lifeless matters. There are also some arty people (the ladies, of course, smoking plain 18-cent cigarets) – talking rather more loudly than others about what Varley is doing, and what Lauren Harris’ sixteenth study of Snow will be. The rest are mainly young people, fled in here, shoulder to shoulder and back to back with strangers, in order to be alone.
All the while, an elderly and melancholy gentleman with a worried and beaten look about him may be glimpsed through doorways, past curtains; a harried air to him. He is not doing anything. He seems to have come downstairs to look for his tobacco pouch, and doesn’t know how to get back, unseen. Several of the ladies-in-waiting stare warningly at him as be makes his stealthy dashes from curtain to hallway.
This is Mr. McGintye, Maggye’s father. No doubt as fine a business man, in his day, as ever swung a walking-stick down Yonge street.
But in the process of transmutation of residential district, this old gentleman has been shanghaied by his womenfolk, given the name of McGintye and made partner in tea shoppe.
Editor’s Note: All I could think of while reading this story from over 100 years ago was the appearance of Starbuck’s coffee shops everywhere.