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Food and Community in American College Girl Fiction


Children's and young adult literature is laden with scenes of food, and readers often associate a special treat or meal with a favorite text: Harry Potter's magical world has its butterbeer, chocolate frogs, and pumpkin pasties, and Narnia is forever linked with Turkish Delight. Realistic texts, too, have countless food-related associations. The readers of the Little House books remember Ma's "vanity cakes" and butter- and cheese-making. The Ray family's Sunday lunches, featuring Mr Ray's famous onion sandwiches, are a key detail of the Betsy-Tacy series. One of the most memorable scenes in A Little Princess is Sara's clandestine feast up in the attic. Food in children's literature is usually related to some special community activity, and the campus or college novel is no exception. In turn-of-the-century college novels, from series like Betty Wales (Warde, 1904-1916), Marjorie Dean (Lester, 1922-1930), and Molly Brown (Speed, 1912-1921), to stand-alone volumes like When Patty Went to College (1903), Two College Girls (Brown, 1886) and even Anne Shirley at Redmond College in Anne of the Island (1914), food and female-dominated community are not only a specific college experience for the girls, but a way in which they express and explore their burgeoning roles as women. 

If, as Judith Butler, building on Simone de Beauvoir's critical work, posits in Gender Trouble, womanhood is "a becoming, a constructing", gender itself can be considered "a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame" over time, something that one does, not that one is1. It is possible to see how, through food-centric college spaces like the college spread and the tea room, fictional heroines, as well as girls in real life, were able to redefine place, space, and even gender roles. In this way, college girls in fiction could subvert or challenge gender boundaries, claim companionship on their own terms, even earn money and develop skills for pursuing life's work by reconfiguring domestic spaces into new and progressive contexts, with the hyper-feminine buffer of food preparation and consumption at its centre.  

Oh, you'll like college, Betty.... Every girl has her own reasons for liking college–but every nice girl likes it.

Betty Wales, Freshman

The College Novel in America

In the later half of the nineteenth century, coinciding with first wave feminism, several women's colleges were established in the Northeastern United States, now known collectively as the Seven Sisters colleges. Other universities went co-ed, and many newer public universities were founded specifically as co-educational institutions. The golden age of women's colleges, from the late 1800s through the first decades of the 1900s, corresponded with progressive attitudes about women's abilities, rights, health, and variety of social issues. College life and the all-American college girl in particular became pop culture phenomena, and was recognizable branding during this era.

With women's colleges flourishing and the number of girls attending college and taking degrees on the rise, publishers, too, capitalized on the college girl phenomenon with several novels and series set at fictionalized versions (or amalgamations) of Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Wellesley and Smith. Timing was perfect for this genre of fiction, since book publishers, especially the Stratemeyer Syndicate, were starting to see great success with series fiction; the real life college experience had certain elements built in, which worked for plots and developed into specific story- and character arcs. The series could be broken down by year (When Margaret was a Freshman, Grace Harlowe's Second Year at Overton College) and usually continued with several adventures after the heroine and her friends graduate (Molly Brown’s Orchard Home, B.A.'s Abroad), in order to prolong the college experience with group travel or working at their alma mater in some capacity. The college novel or series usually opens with an 'everygirl' heroine leaving home and arriving to college a bit naïve, and continuing over the years at school with her meeting new people, encountering challenges, and taking part in college-specific traditions and activities (like Vassar's Daisy Chain, or Mountain Day, held at Mt. Holyoke and Smith colleges). Applying Butler's theories of gender to this, the college girl protagonists and their friends can be read as performing specific acts that construct their gender as young women, in the context of their social environs. College fiction showed the all-around-girl protagonist becoming part of a college-centric society, assimilating with the other girls, leading a group of friends of her own, and growing within her college community, or, as Marjorie Dean often calls it, "the country of College". By engaging in college-specific activities with other girls, even if a novel or heroine is not overtly feminist in regards to ideology, the active navigation of the girls' female-centric, domestic, and yet non-traditional community like theirs demonstrates modelled gender, around which food is a mitigating factor, if not outright catalyst. 

College as it was portrayed in the college novel provides an inclusive, safe, isolated community of young women, a world that, as Shirley Marchalonis writes in her 1995 critical text College Girls: A Century in Fiction, exists "between girlhood and womanhood", and gave the feeling that college would extend girlhood a little longer. College has different expectations than the outside world, and Marchalonis notes that "women [in college] are to find and respect themselves, to value and use their abilities".2 Accordingly, in the college novel, college was also a place of transformation and possibility: a poor girl can become respectably middle-class via hard work and education, a bad girl straightens out with the inspiration and friendship of the all-around-girl heroine, an orphan finds a parent or parents, and all of the girls learn important lessons. College in fiction especially reflects new spaces and new roles for women at that time. Many of the girls on campus are active in social work, teaching, business and other career-oriented jobs, student politics, and even world travel. 

Life for girls in the college novel foregrounds female communities, and being part of this kind of group, be it formal or informal, was the most valued experience of college in most of these stories. The books usually de-emphasized actual academics, and, typical for their time, certainly lacked elements of real social and racial diversity or poverty (although there are few notable exceptions to be discussed later). World War One is downplayed or not mentioned at all. Parents usually provide loving but distant presence, and even most teachers remain on the periphery. Especially, men were mostly kept on perimeters of the girls' college experience. Even if the novels are set at a co-ed institution, the emphasis is consistently on female-dominated spaces like rooming houses, societies, sports teams (particularly basketball and golf), and dramatic- and literary clubs. These spaces have new and/or different rules, codes of behaviour, and the plots of many of the college novels centre on how the protagonists learn to negotiate these new all- or predominantly-female worlds, performing their gender in new or altered roles. Secondary characters who are loners or lack proper class spirit must either be incorporated into the group in some way, or will eventually be shunned, often permanently. Most interesting, the all-girl environment emphatically includes all-girl dances and other social events where older girls are expected to escort younger ones as dates, often with romantic trappings like gifts of candy and flowers. Unlike French versions of similar girls' school stories by Colette or Balzac, these American counterparts are not overt in their homoeroticism; any hints of sexuality or lesbianism is all subtext. Rather, American college novels, as well as real-life experiences of college girls at the time, created an idea of innocent, pre-sexual space for young women that was sometimes called the "Adamless Eden".3

Numerous campus activities are centred on or built around food and drink, whether it is a formal welcoming tea held by faculty or a housemother, the colleges' annual picnic excursions and bacon-bats, or a class-sponsored dinner. Here, the college girls encounter new feminine social rules and must perform appropriately in response. When gentle, sensitive Molly Brown is newly-arrived to Wellington College (Molly Brown's Freshman Days, 1912), one of her first tests of character and college etiquette comes when she is asked to cook and wait table for a snobby sophomore's dinner party. Despite the curt demand and the humiliation she feels at serving the "well-to-do girls, the richest girls in college" (79-80), another upper-classmate advises her, "You'd better accept, Molly, with good grace," and Molly resigns to do so "like a lady".4 She manages an elegant multi-course dinner served with aplomb, inadequate supplies notwithstanding, and the meal intended to shame her instead shows her in favorable light to other students and faculty alike. She wins lavish praise for her charm, and one of the gentlemen openly tells her she has "behaved beautifully"5 at the dinner party. 

The most popular kind of college entertainment depicted in these novels, however, was the 'spread'. 

A Dorm Room Spread

Whether as an organized meeting or as a secret after-hours feast, the informal college spread held in the girls' suites and dorm rooms required several key components: tea, a chafing dish, and a box of treats from home. Often, the girls attend these spreads en déshabillé in nightclothes, predominantly garbed in then-popular kimono-robes, lending a rakish intimacy to the proceedings. Like a type of female-centric communion, the spread became so ubiquitous with the college girl experience that by the early 1900s, multiple cookbooks and ladies' magazines published entire collections of recipes that could be made in a chafing dish or over a spirit lamp, and dorm-friendly double-boilers and teakettles were manufactured and marketed with the college girl in mind.6 Almost every girl thought it necessary to bring to college a chafing dish or an alcohol lamp, along with full tea-tables and even complete sets of china. The college spread was just as omnipresent in the girls' college novels, and one of Betty Wales’s first compromises with her awkward new roommate, Helen, is for each of them to buy an item to complete their dormitory tea-table, Betty providing the chafing-dish, and Helen the teakettle, even though Betty would prefer that the tea-table, her first act of domestic housekeeping, be all her own undertaking.7 

Jean Cabot Spread

Jean Cabot's dorm room spread goes dramatically awry. Gertrude Scott, Jean Cabot at Ashton. Boston: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1912

In Jean Cabot at Ashton (1912), an entire chapter is devoted to Jean's chafing-dish party for several actress friends in the annual "French play", Racine's tragedy Andromaque. The play provides a framework of Butleresque gender performativity, queerness, and decadence to Jean's spread, since most of the guests are girls who had made "perfectly stunning men" in the play; they marvel at "[seeing] girls play men's parts" onstage, especially how one girl was "perfectly adorable" in a male role, and that "I'd be only too glad to let her make love to me".8 However, once gathered for the spread, Jean puts them to work with domestic chores: "make yourself useful as well as ornamental. Please beat this egg. … Marjorie, will you put the crackers on the plates? Sallie, cut up the cheese, will you?"9 Disaster almost strikes when Jean accidentally starts a small fire with spilled alcohol from the chafing-dish in which she is concocting a "rabbit", but Jean "threw the blazing platter and its contents down into the snow below".10 This mishap results in Jean's burned fingers, singed hair, and a too-close-to-curfew expedition outside in the snow to retrieve her chafing-dish, but the girls declare "your adventure such a novelty in the way of entertainment".11 After the guests leave, Jean wraps up cheese-and-cracker sandwiches of the failed rabbit, announcing "I mean that every girl shall have a souvenir of the great and glorious occasion".12 From the attendees, to the small but almost calamitous fire, Jean's college spread involves all of the elements of many of the college novel: coded lesbianism/homoeroticism, bending (but not outright breaking) rules, excitement, adventure, a problem solved by the everygirl protagonist, and an awareness of obligation and hospitality to her friends and housemates, all met with arch humour.

Not only are spreads a sign of friendliness and hospitality, but girls in college fiction who refuse invitations to spreads and all they imply - fellowship, friendship, and fun - are immediately suspect. Girls declining to attend spreads in favour of studying, in particular, are considered "grinds" or "digs" in college parlance, and will be encouraged at some point in the plot to eschew schoolwork for the more important element of socialization with other girls at college. 

Specific foods and cooking techniques were associated with a spread, as well. More ambitious girls could prepare anything from creamed oysters, fried sausages, scrambled eggs, Lobster Newburg, or chicken a la king in their chafing dishes. But the most popular foods, and the ones most regularly depicted in college novel spreads, include the aforementioned Welsh "rabbit" (or rarebit), with the melted cheese poured over toast or crackers, as well as candy, particularly fudge. 

American-style chocolate fudge became the treat of choice at college spreads, and its careful preparation was often the central activity of a college spread. Three of the original women's colleges, Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith, each published recipes claiming to have perfected the chafing-dish staple. Each school has its own version, with brown sugar and molasses, or coffee, or the quaintly named "plowed field" with small marshmallows pressed into each square before the candy is cooled fully. Archived letters quoted in multiple sources from girls at the time writing to parents and friends include tales of stealing butter, milk and sugar from dining room tables in order to facilitate fudge-making at a nighttime spread. In fact, fudge and fudge-making is so intrinsic to the college girl experience that Sherrie A. Inness notes that the candy "is the sign and badge of amiable association" and "appears whenever there seems to be a need to reassimilate a student into the community or affirm her affiliation with it".13 In Grace Harlowe's First Year at Overton College (1914), Grace and her friends note that in the first two weeks of college alone, there had already been "a number of jolly gatherings in Mrs Elwood's living room, at which quantities of fudge and penuchi [a caramel-like confection similar to fudge, made with brown sugar, butter, and milk] were made and eaten and mere acquaintances became fast friends".14 When Betty Wales hosts her first spread (Betty Wales, Freshman, 1904), she and her friends have a good-natured yet serious debate about precisely what time the fudge-making should commence: Betty wants to start it right away, but a friend points out that "most of the fun of a spread is mixing the things together and taking turns tasting and stirring", and another girl says that "It would be awkward to finish eating too early, when that’s the only entertainment".15 To Betty's dismay, the fudge boils over and will not thicken, but her friends Eleanor and Roberta save the party with another popular element of the college dorm room spread, 'stunts'. In college slang, stunts are silly, novel, unique, and unusual entertainments, or, as Betty explains it to her roommate, "just silly little parlor tricks".16 Stunts might include singing or playing a mandolin, guitars, or ukulele, performing a clever recitation, doing impersonations, reading palms or tea leaves, acting out scenes in costume (often cross-dressed, which lends a subversive gender-related element), or improvising parodies. Anything fun and amusing to entertain the other guests was appreciated in the college dorm setting, and some girls had a regular stunt that they performed over the years, like Roberta’s "Jabberwock" routine in the Betty Wales books. By the time the girls have enjoyed Eleanor's "gypsy street singer" act and Roberta's "grotesque" Jabberwock display that "succeeded in reducing its audience to a state of abject and tearful mirth",17 everyone but Betty has forgotten the failed fudge-making, and the spread is considered a triumph. Still, Betty makes it a point to do the hospitable thing and, the next morning, she cooks the fudge downstairs on the kitchen stove, and sends around packages of it to her guests. 

While away at college, some girls could count on mothers, aunts and grandmothers to keep them supplied with home-canned meats and preserves, unfrosted loaf cakes that would travel well and improve in flavour after a week or more, and assorted cookies, biscuit, candies, and other prized treats. Distant beaux or young men (like a college girl's brother wishing to earn favour with her roommate), too, might provide treats for an entire dorm floor or boarding house by sending boxes of candy, and a particularly winning and knowledgeable gentleman might send a five-pound box so that a girl could share with her friends. 

Both in real life and in the novels, college girls freely shared these gifts or foodstuffs from home, sometimes even planning a spread around the contents of a just-arrived care-package. Molly Brown hosts her first spread with treats sent from her family in Kentucky, serving hickory-nut cake, cured “"old ham", beaten biscuits, and home-made rosemary pickles along with the customary chafing-dish fudge (Molly Brown's Freshman Days). As a Southerner at a New England women's college, Molly's Kentucky spread is as novel and charming to the other girls as Molly herself, and her "eats" prove popular, sealing her reputation with the others. When the evening concludes with stunty fortune telling, Molly's fortune is more of a benediction indicating this very thing: "I can only say that 'kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Norman blood,' and by the end of your freshman year you will be the most popular girl in college".18

Come in to-night and have tea and cakes with us after lessons. That is the highest proof of hospitality I can offer at present.

Grace Harlowe's First Year at Overton College


Two Smith College students indulge in tea, biscuits, and pickles (noticeably served with a hatpin).

CREDIT: Bertha Allen and Helen Lambert, 12 March 1892. Smith College Archives.

College spreads were generally meant to be impromptu, fun, and a little impractical or harum scarum both in nature and in terms of refreshments served. Making due with what was on hand - nonperishables or easily-prepared treats - was one key to a successful spread, and college room-mates made it a point to stock their rooms with groceries for such occasions: jars of olives and pickles, canned goods, packaged cookies, biscuits, or crackers, cocoa powder or chocolate squares for fudge-making, and tins of tea. In Two College Girls (1886), Rosamond's cleverness and charm is indicated in part by her first no-frills spread:

""Now for a regular college spread, the spread informal," said Rosamond, as she unfolded a piece of brown wrapping-paper on the bare table, erected pyramids of crackers at each corner, and established as a centre-piece a box of sardines and a lemon…. "There's nothing but my one drinking-cup till I've unpacked. Did you ever see such a barn of a room? It will take me an age to get settled. There, ladies, help yourselves; it belongs to the crowd.""19

Breezy Patty Wyatt, heroine of Jean Webster’s When Patty Went to College (1903), makes the purpose of a dorm room college spread clear when she hosts their regular group of Vassar friends. In a matter of minutes, Patty dispatches one guest to go buy more sugar since she has lent theirs out, sends another to borrow alcohol from a freshman down the hall, and has her roommate "hunt around for the spoons… I think I saw them on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, behind Kipling".20 After observing that the teacups are "rather dusty" but "it's too much trouble" to wash them, Patty solves the issue by instructing her roommate Priscilla to "Just close the blinds, please, and we'll light the candles, and that will do as well".21 As the girls recline on cushions, Patty declares herself a most "attentive hostess", and informs her guests:

""The object of tea is not for the sake of the tea, but for the conversation which accompanies it, and one must not let accidents annoy him. You see, young ladies," she went on, in the tone of an instructor giving a lecture, "though I have just spilled the alcohol over the sugar, I appear not to notice it, but keep up an easy flow of conversation to divert my guests. A repose of manner is above all things to be cultivated.""22

Patty's impromptu nature meant that the teacups might be none too clean, the teakettle might boil away, and essential ingredients were likely to go missing, but the conversation was sure to be fascinating and entertaining, as memorable as Patty herself.

In many ways, spreads could be considered a preparation for domestic life, for girls to practice their hostessing duties, with an emphasis on hospitality and improvisation, performing and constructing womanhood through acts signifying well-trained homemaking. But these seemingly pre-housewifely tasks, and the mode of gender they construct, take on a different sort of carefree air, from humorous to subversive with their improvisations. If there are no forks, girls might use a hatpin for the olives, and teacups might be used for soup plates. Substituting hair tonic or perfume if one is out of alcohol for lighting the burner is effective, innovative, and practical. Girls might borrow extra cushions in lieu of chairs for seating, or spread a shawl over a table as a makeshift tablecloth, but a spread would still be considered an elegant, civilized gathering by all involved.


Otoyo Sen hosts a Japanese version of a dorm room spread in 1912's Molly Brown's Sophomore Days.

One of the most unique spreads in the college novels is Otoyo Sen's "Japanese Spread" in Molly Brown's Sophomore Days (1912). Modern readers will find Otoyo's racially problematic depiction grating, relying on cloying mannerisms and pidgin English, and it takes some suspension of disbelief to remember that the presence of a non-Western classmate in juvenile fiction was quite unusual at the time. (Unusual in fiction, but not in fact: the history of young Japanese women in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century being sent to American universities to learn Western ways for the benefit of their families and nation as a whole has been documented in books like Janice P. Nimura’s 2015 Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back.) Despite the implications via racist stereotypes, in the Molly Brown series, Otoyo is nevertheless very much a respected member of her college community at Wellington, and portrayed as such throughout the books. When she hosts her first college spread, her popularity is clear from the moment her guests arrive: "there were at least twenty of them; for Otoyo's acquaintance was large and numbered girls from all four classes",23 and these guests even cheer and serenade her, college girl style, before knocking on the door, demonstrating their affection for her. 

Otoyo's party is a fascinating hybrid of typical college girl spread, and Japanese chanoyu or formal tea ceremony, emphasizing hospitality. But while the other girls have "Oriental" kimono-style robes and find it "stunty" to serve things like Japanese tea with Japanese teaspoons or decorate their rooms with paper lanterns, divans, fans, screens, and other Asian-inspired ephemera popular at the time, Otoyo's spread, from her decor to her kimono to her fortune-telling, is the real thing, not mere appropriation: "The divans were spread with Japanese covers" and Otoyo has parasols, fish-shaped lanterns, and cotton crepe curtains "of pale blue with a pink cherry-blossom design" hanging around the room, while "incense of smoking joss-sticks" rises from a corner. The table is set with "funny little handleless cups" and "lacquered trays of candied fruits, rice cakes and other indescribable Japanese 'meat-sweets', as Otoyo had called them", and she entertains her guests by giving out Japanese lacquered boxes and toys after "sitting cross-legged on the floor" where she "sang a song in her own language, accompanying herself on a curious stringed instrument, a kind of Japanese banjo".24 The girls are delighted by every aspect of Otoyo's spread, but the party both strengthens the ties of friendship between all of the girls, while simultaneously emphasizing Otoyo's foreign, non-American status in the group. 

This combination of surprising representation combined with problematic racism is not easy to unpack, even in historical context. Otoyo's Japanese spread emphasizes the American fascination at that time with all things described in terms like 'exotic' and 'Oriental', and is exciting to her guests because of how novel an experience it is. However, it also reflects Otoyo's combined pride in her nationality along with her desire to 'fit in' with the American girls, something students from multi-national backgrounds today still struggle to reconcile. Otoyo performs not only gender, but culture, as well. 

A spread can be many things in the college novel. It might be organized around a club meeting, a fundraiser or clothing swap, charitable activities like making valentines or May Day baskets or wrapping Christmas gifts, or, more rarely, even a light study session. Spreads never - at least not for the nice college everygirl and her friends - involve gossip, talking about boys and men, intense studying or "cramming", mean-spirited tricks, pranks, and hazing, or any true rule-breaking. The college girl dorm room spread, whether planned or impromptu, or involving a problem-solving discussion about class elections and basketball games or hours of stunts and entertainment, all are democratic, girl-dominated spaces in which the food and food preparation in an essential, even central, element.

College girls are always running tea-rooms.

Betty Wales & Co

Tea Rooms

One of the other specific meal sources arising in large part from college girl culture is the American version of the tea room. Tea rooms in general are decidedly twentieth century, since, before that, tea was had at home, in private domestic space. After the turn-of-the-century, however, several things combined to make tea rooms so popular that the "tea room era" lasted for over fifty years in America. With more girls going away to college combined with the modern event of the automobile road trip, like 'Sunday drives', tea rooms popped up on country roads along the way and department stores put in tea rooms for shoppers. Prohibition in the 1920s resulted in hotels hosting afternoon 'tea dances' as alternative venues for socializing. Tea rooms flourished in particular near women's colleges where a mother's home cooking was no longer available and male-centric dining clubs were not an option. The colleges often provided lists approved establishments, and girls gravitated toward these comfortable, home-like spaces for their meetings, or when they missed the dinner seating at the campus rooming house or dining-hall. 

Tea rooms at the time operated as sites of both female correctness and playful transgressiveness. Over a century ago, tea rooms were markedly different from more formal restaurants and juvenile drugstore soda fountains. Unlike pubs and taverns, tea rooms were associated with respectability and high standards for food, cleanliness, and patrons' good behaviour. It was acceptable for women to go alone or with other women to a tea room, and, moreover, it was also acceptable for women to work there, even run them, without it damaging their reputations. In fact, many women college graduates did this, staying on near their alma maters. While men were usually welcome to dine there, too, tea rooms were primarily spaces for women, where they could eat informally alone or with friends. Tea rooms provided the first modern eating spaces of gender and social equality: college girls (sometimes with their beaux or a group of girls), fine ladies, working women, shoppers, or travellers out for a drive could all comfortably stop at a little 'inn' for a restorative light meal or pot of tea. Additionally, many tea rooms found it was popular, as well as financially beneficial, to add jumble shops or sell handmade arts and crafts, antiques, foodstuffs, or other novelty items.

During their heyday in many ways, as food historian and author of Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America Jan Whitakernotes, tea rooms "acted as border institutions", not only operating "between the private realm of home and the college 'keep' and the larger society; between the physical space of the college and the town/city" but also "between domestic endeavors such as running a household and 'masculine' careers in business" and even "between forms of gender-segregated and mixed sociability with college men".25 Whitaker has noted that "every aspect of the tea room, from decor to cuisine to proprietorship, was loaded with meaning that can be decoded nicely by exploring the social life of the college girl" during this transition period from the nineteenth century into the twentieth, and that "the gestalt", as Whitaker puts it, of the tea room "combined both mild transgressiveness of the late-night 'spread' and the propriety of tea", combining "a familiar note of respectability" with "overtones of social eliteness and feminine social stature".26

Within a decade, especially in the American Northeast, patrons had a wide varieties of tea rooms to choose from, many featuring different themes, like Japanese pagodas, country cottages, fountains and gardens, even live music. The now-kitschy early American décor was considered innovative, even daring, as the girls and women threw off the influence of heavy Victoriana, and gravitated towards found heritage objects and lighter, fresh, 'colonial' items, ransacking attics for things their parents had rejected. Many tea rooms had a boldly eccentric bohemian air about them, with their second-hand outdated furniture and mismatched tea cups, especially if they were set up in an old carriage-house, barn, or cottage. Some tea rooms were also famous for their feminist and political discussion, like the Rose Tree Inn near Smith College, where proprietress Anna de Naucaze allowed smoking and drinking (until the college stopped approving students' visits there). Mary Aletta Crump, known as "Crumpy", and her Crumperie Tea Rooms helped establish Greenwich Village's atmosphere of bohemia in New York City, and tea rooms became a lively place for writers to gather.27

Tea rooms might be run by or have cooks who were immigrant women, providing their own national dishes and family recipes, and, in this way, they familiarized their college girl patrons with international dishes that they might not have experienced in America otherwise, making commonplace Chinese, Spanish, Italian, Jewish, and Indian cuisine. Chinese fried chicken was a familiar tea room delicacy. Black women, too, cooked in or ran tea rooms, and several 'soul food' staples associated with southern plantations became popular Northern tea room items: chicken and waffles, collard greens, black eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, and biscuits and gravy. The tea room menu was also one of the first places to provide vegetarian dishes, in association with temperance and women's rights movements. 

More than themed decor and atmosphere, tea rooms developed a cuisine all their own. Writes Whitaker, tea room fare was "a free-wheeling blend of simplified French and New England plain, with a preference for fresh ingredients and simplicity in preparation". She further notes that tea room cooks "apparently felt any recipe could be improved with the addition of liberal amounts of butter, cream, and mayonnaise", and that many all-American dishes, including "the sandwich, the salad, and the casserole came into their own on tea room menus… Tea room cuisine had its highs and its lows, its marshmallows and its handmade mayonnaise. It blended the chic and the corny, old traditions and new twists".28 Local tea room dishes were fresh, interesting, and different, although they often featured a few cozy favourites, like hash or creamed chicken. In general, however, their menus appealed to the new, modern palate. Based on cookbooks and training guides focuses on running tea rooms, popular contemporary recipes included salads (which meant that the dish was prepared with mayonnaise, not that it was lettuce-based), sandwiches, pot-pies, and fried croquettes or patties, which were all more economical to serve than beefsteak, fish, or chops. But even the simplest fare, like cinnamon toast or butter cookies with tea were relished by tea room patrons. Especially, tea rooms in many ways were just an updated version of the dorm room spread, which is reflected by one of the most popular tea room menu items, 'Cheese Dreams'. Cheese Dreams, or, simply, melted cheese poured over bread or crackers and then sometimes broiled, is essentially a slight upgrade of the dorm room staple, Welsh rabbit/rarebit.

Most of the girls' college novels feature favourite tea rooms as off-campus home-away-from-dorm environments, the site of many a formal or informal conversation, and sometimes even the source of competition with a rival group of unpleasant girls on campus. (This trope has morphed over time in young adult novels into a group's or school's favourite soda- or malt shop, to diners, or a favourite pizza parlour or burger place, and, today a favourite coffeehouse.) Grace Harlowe and her Semper Fidelis club, a group that works to provide opportunities for disadvantaged students at Overton College, adopt Vinton's and Martell's as local hangouts. Grace and her friends visit there regularly for tea or ices and lengthy chats in one of the cozy alcoves at Vinton's, or Waldorf salad at their favourite round table at Martell's. Not only that, but they also arrange with the proprietors of both establishments to help them sponsor an "old-fashioned turkey dinner" at Christmas for girls who can't afford to go home for the break, or who don't have homes to go to in the first place.29 Marjorie Dean and her friends frequent Baretti's for "delicious fried chicken and extra crisp waffles",30 Mountain cake, or the "toothsome old-fashioned chicken pot-pie and its palatable accompaniments which was one of Baretti's most popular specialties".31 Betty Wales and the other members of the "Merry Hearts society" at Harding College enjoy wholesome chicken salad or creamed chicken at their nearby favourite, Holmes's. 

The Betty Wales series also provides one of the most detailed and comprehensive fictional accounts of college girls and tea rooms when, in Betty Wales & Co., several of the Merry Hearts open a tea room together. After they graduate from Harding College and then spend a year in Europe, Betty and a few friends return to campus and establish a tea room in an old, big barn. Betty Wales & Co. is one of the most detailed books in the series, especially in terms of seeing how a college tea room might be set up and decorated, how it would be run, and what kind of food it would serve. Even before they find the right location, one of the Merry Hearts, Madeline Ayres, writes a characteristically "delightfully haphazard and cheerful and Bohemian" letter to Betty about collecting recipes and buying blue Canton china in England in anticipation of their venture, scribbling about "double-decker bread-trays, and little toast-racks, and mustard pots"; Madeline suggests that if Betty were there, "we'd hunt up an English cooking school and learn to make scones and bannocks and Bath buns" but instead, she has "asked a queer little English woman in my boarding-house to give me the recipes".32 Matching china for their own place is very important to the girls. (Betty strongly disapproves of a downtown shop back home with "three different kinds" of china patterns in the tea service!) Especially, they want a shop that reflects college girl attitudes, something "stunty", with lots of "features". When they arrange to rent an abandoned barn for their venture, Madeline gives Betty a tour and gushes in breathtaking detail:

""I see it all myself plain as anything. Long narrow tables in the stalls — ideal nooks for romantic couples. Big sociable round tables out here. Ferns and oak branches in the mangers. Bins transformed into linen and china cupboards. Old sporting prints on the walls — father has some beauties tucked away somewhere. Gargoyles and candlesticks and Flemish lamps scattered around in dark corners. Lights — let me see — oh, yes, carriage lamps for lights. An open fire — we simply must have that — it's the one thing lacking. Why, Betty Wales, there's nothing like it anywhere!""33

The girls name their tea room "The Tally-Ho Tea-Shop", and its "eats" are inspired by "Glasgow tea-rooms, and... the Oxford Street and Piccadilly shops" they frequented when they travelled in the UK. After the first year, the girls have also built a "Peter Pan Annex" treehouse in a large elm outside, where tea is served by way of a basket and pulley system, an appropriately 'stunty' touch.

Not only does the The Tally-Ho Tea-Shop provide Betty with much-needed income with which to help her family, but it also gives her the business and managerial experience she will put to use in the 1917 installment of the series, Betty Wales, Business Woman, in which Betty and several of her friends learn the dressmaking business in New York City.


Both tea rooms and college fiction began to diminish in popularity around the same time. After World War Two, tea rooms had given way to newer dining spaces for girls and boys alike, like diners, Automats, and eventually, fast food places. Similarly, college girl fiction disappeared by the 1940s, replaced by the never-aging Nancy Drew and her mystery-solving adventures, which changed the way series fiction was produced, marketed, and consumed by readers. Additionally, post-Freud, it was impossible to ignore the sexual double meanings in the all-girl environment of the college novels. 

Nevertheless, the effects of the genre linger, and the redefined college spaces, using food as a buffer, allowed generations of women both in fiction as well as in real life to explore, engage with, and subvert their gendered place in college, and, as a result, in the world beyond it.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990, 45.

Go to footnote reference 2.

Shirley Marchalonis, College Girls: A Century in Fiction. Rutgers University Press, 1995, 69.

Go to footnote reference 3.

Patricia Ann Palmieri, In Adamless Eden: The Community of Women Faculty at Wellesley. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Go to footnote reference 4.

Nell Speed, Molly Brown's Freshman Days. New York: Hurst & Co, 1912, 79-81.

Go to footnote reference 5.

ibid, 97.

Go to footnote reference 6.

Lynn Peril, College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-eds, Then and Now. New York: Norton, 2006.

Go to footnote reference 7.

Margaret Warde, Betty Wales, Freshman. Philadelphia: Penn Publishing Co, 1904, 37-38.

Go to footnote reference 8.

Gertrude Scott, Jean Cabot at Ashton. Boston: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1912, 175-176.

Go to footnote reference 9.

ibid, 176.

Go to footnote reference 10.

ibid, 177.

Go to footnote reference 11.

ibid, 183.

Go to footnote reference 12.

ibid, 185.

Go to footnote reference 13.

Sherrie A. Inness, Intimate Communities: Representation and Social Transformation in Women's College Fiction, 1895–1910. Bowling Green State University: Popular Press, 1995, 43.

Go to footnote reference 14.

Jessie Graham Flower, Grace Harlowe's First Year at Overton College. Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Co, 1914, 55.

Go to footnote reference 15.

Margaret Warde, Betty Wales, Freshman. Philadelphia: Penn Publishing Co, 1904, 96.

Go to footnote reference 16.

ibid, 102.

Go to footnote reference 17.

ibid, 98.

Go to footnote reference 18.

Nell Speed, Molly Brown's Freshman Days. New York: Hurst & Co, 1912, 71.

Go to footnote reference 19.

Helen Dawes Brown, Two College Girls. Boston: Ticknor, 1886, 52.

Go to footnote reference 20.

Jean Webster, When Patty Went to College. New York: The Century Company, 1903, 24.

Go to footnote reference 21.

ibid, 23.

Go to footnote reference 22.

ibid, 26.

Go to footnote reference 23.

Nell Speed, Molly Brown's Sophomore Days. New York: Hurst & Co, 1912, 114.

Go to footnote reference 24.

ibid, 115-116.

Go to footnote reference 25.

personal correspondence.

Go to footnote reference 26.


Go to footnote reference 27.

Go to footnote reference 28.

Jan Whitaker, Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America. New York: St. Martin’s, 2002, 9-10.

Go to footnote reference 29.

Jessie Graham Flower, Grace Harlowe's Third Year at Overton College. Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Co, 1914.

Go to footnote reference 30.

Pauline Lester, Marjorie Dean, College Senior. A.L. Burt Co, 1922, 201.

Go to footnote reference 31.

Pauline Lester, Marjorie Dean, College Sophomore. A.L. Burt Co, 1922, 24.

Go to footnote reference 32.

Margaret Warde, Betty Wales & Co. Philadelphia: Penn Publishing Co, 1909, 46-47.

Go to footnote reference 33.

ibid, 85.


Helen Dawes Brown, Two College Girls. Boston: Ticknor, 1886.

Judith Butler. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Jessie Graham Flower. Grace Harlowe's First Year at Overton College. Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Co, 1914.

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth Century Beginnings to the 1930s (2nd ed). U of Mass, 1993.

Sherrie A. Inness, Intimate Communities: Representation and Social Transformation in Women's College Fiction, 1895–1910. Popular Press, 1995.

Pauline Lester, Marjorie Dean, College Sophomore. A.L. Burt Co., 1922. 

Pauline Lester, Marjorie Dean, College Senior. A.L. Burt Co., 1922.

Alice Foote MacDougall, Coffee and Waffles. Doubleday, Page & Co, 1926. 

Shirley Marchalonis. College Girls: A Century in Fiction. Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Janice P. Nimura, Daughters of the Samurai: A Journey from East to West and Back. W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Patricia Ann Palmieri, In Adamless Eden: The Community of Women Faculty at Wellesley. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Lynn Peril, College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-eds, Then and Now. New York: Norton, 2006.

Gertrude Scott, Jean Cabot at Ashton. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1912.

Nell Speed, Molly Brown's Freshman Days. New York: Hurst & Co, 1912.

Nell Speed, Molly Brown's Sophomore Days. New York: Hurst & Co, 1912.

Margaret Warde, Betty Wales, Freshman. Philadelphia: Penn Publishing Co, 1904.

Margaret Warde, Betty Wales & Co. Philadelphia: Penn Publishing Co, 1909.

Margaret Warde, Betty Wales, Business Woman. Betty Wales Dressmakers, 1916.

Jean Webster, When Patty Went to College. New York: Century Company, 1903.

Jan Whitaker, Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America. New York: St. Martin’s, 2002.

Jan Whitaker,

Dawn Sardella-Ayres

Dawn Sardella-Ayres (PhD, University of Cambridge, 2016) recently completed a tenure as the Ofstad Guest Scholar at Truman State University, teaching a course on girls’ literature and the girls’ Bildungsroman in the United States and Canada. She has published on Alcott, Montgomery, and Wilder, and researches issues related to gender and race, as well as the Kunstlerroman, in late nineteenth- and early twentieth century girls’ texts. She regularly hosts chafing dish parties, and makes wonderful creamed chicken on toast.