Frances Virginia opened the Frances Virginia Tea Room in the late 1920’s, and “by 1931, was serving 1,000 people a day…which meant 1 percent of Atlanta’s population was eating at the tea room each day!” The Frances Virginia remained open for nearly four decades, and is now memorialized in The Frances Virginia Tea Room Cookbook by Mildred Huff Coleman.
Francis was the pioneer to tearoom food that matched the genius and ordinariness of Kate Cranston’s pioneering of tearoom style. She built a tea establishment that daily served an estimated one percent of Atlanta’s population in the 1920’s. She was an exemplary employer, one of the first to offer benefits and pay Afro-American staff on the same basis as whites. She gave away an estimated million dollars in free food during the Depression.
Frances Virginia’s advertising targeted youngsters, tourists, workers, sports fans, singles, and families. Her tea room was a friendly host to gays. Sadly however, while her workers were predominantly Afro-American, blacks couldn’t be customers. Atlanta was racially segregated, with aggressive police and legal controls at this time.
In times past..
In Rich’s, Atlanta’s largest department store, the window and the menu at the Cockerel Grill proclaimed, ”Men Only until after 3:00.” One female diner at the Frances Virginia Tea Room remembered, “I used to peer through the window and wonder why I couldn’t enter! Why did I have to trudge upstairs and wait in line at the Magnolia [Tea] Room when there were empty seats downstairs in the Cockerel Grill? I could look in and see the men all sitting there, drinking the same iced tea and eating the same ham sandwiches that we women would order upstairs in the Magnolia Room.”
In these years women had limited options for dining, careers and public leadership. However, Frances Virginia’s tea room became her vehicle for social change. Our 21st century tea rooms are quite different from those of Frances Virginia’s Roaring Twenties, so it may be difficult to imagine how a tea room could serve as a vehicle for social change. It is unimaginable that women did not have free access to public dining rooms during Frances Virginia’s era. However, except for tea rooms, many restaurants refused to serve women, particularly without an escort, as late as the 1950’s.
A forerunner of her time, Frances provided a socially acceptable space for women outside the home and helped eliminate gendered dining.
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