The American Department Store era started in the late 1800s, spawning many multi-storied buildings large enough to display furnishings, clothing, toiletries and gifts. The downtown department store thrived in every large city including Harrisburg, Pennsylvania from around 1880 into the 1980s, when most of them succumbed to the suburban mall. Pomeroy’s was a department store that opened in Harrisburg in 1878 — the same year as Macy’s in Manhattan. It was founded by the firm of Dives, Pomeroy & Stewart; consisting of George S. Pomeroy and his partners, Josiah Dives and John Stewart.
Nearly all of these department stores, including Pomeroy’s, had tea rooms. These served as a lunch place for employees, neighbors, and foot-weary shoppers. They usually patterned themselves after English tea rooms. Most department stores’ tea rooms were of a more palatial nature, with high ceilinged rooms apart from the business traffic. In a break from this practice, Pomeroy’s installed its tea room on the mezzanine level, hovering above the busy main floor. The room was narrow with windows adjacent to each booth, so one could gaze over the heads of unsuspecting shoppers — a welcome amusement for the antsy child or adult awaiting lunch.
One gets another glimpse of the era’s tea rooms from Hudson’s department store in Detroit, Michigan.
“Restaurant reviewer Duncan Hines loved Hudson’s tea rooms. In the 1947 edition of Adventures in Good Eating he wrote: ‘This splendid department store has devoted the greater part of a floor to the tea rooms. The food is at all times very tempting and the service has that quality of quiet elegance which adds so much to the pleasure of dining. … Don’t overlook the dining room on the mezzanine, if you happen to be in a bit of a hurry. Their chicken pie is outstanding.’” – see http://www.departmentstorehistory.net/index.htm
I was about six years old when I first went with Mom and my sister up the stairway to have lunch in Pomeroy’s tea room. The line for a booth was often crowded at noon, but this didn’t worry us. We were ready for a rare treat — and fast food wasn’t yet known. It wasn’t only special because of the food — the homemade soup which the wise cook had loaded with corn and potatoes, or the toasted cheese with the crust cut off, or the orange ice sherbet served in a silver pedestal cup. It wasn’t just because of the tea — the popular iced tea with a lemon slice during the summer, and a bag of Lipton steeped in boiling water during the winter (from a box stamped “the brisk tea”). It was special experience because the hideaway was a world apart and a respite from our usual life.
A waitress in a starchy gray dress welcomed us that day, offering my mother a cup of coffee while I looked at the purple-typed menu sheathed in plastic. She took our orders and then filled every coffee cup at the next table, all while accompanied by an unidentifiable, overhead instrumental serenade. I was reminded to keep my elbows off the table and to chew my food — “If you don’t do it who will?”
We talked about our errands and then, looking out the window, we saw a hand truck unloading boxes, ladies in stylish hats, and a man surveying the tie counter while his wife tried on rhinestone clip-style earrings… so much to see from our vantage point.
The tea room’s hostess recognized Mom and stopped by to say hello in the midst of the bustling lunch traffic: shoppers getting their “second wind”, city employees finding a perfect lunch place, and Pomeroy’s employees enjoying their own in-house restaurant. Of course this was the era before burger chains, before talk of cholesterol, when shopping downtown was often highlight of the month. The tea room had a sugar bowl on every table.
The disappearance of Pomeroy’s and other “ladies lunch” establishments did encourage tea mavens to open independent tea rooms offering an atmosphere and destination for what I will describe as “afternoon ritual.” By that I mean a reverence for the taking of tea and accompaniments like beautiful sandwiches, desserts and pleasant conversation. The contemporary tea room endures not only for the sedately memorable meal but because it is a fuel station for the soul.