Virgina MacDonald, Tearoom Pioneer

The early third of the 20th century saw incredible growth in American tearooms. In a Saturday Evening Post article from 1938, writer Milton MacKaye perfectly described this modern social and culinary scenario from a male point of view –

Many men—and I number myself among them— have what may be described as spinning wheel trouble. That is, when they approach an inn with a spinning wheel or a couple of green glass bottles in the front yard, they step on the throttle. 


Duncan Hines said that “this phobia against tearooms, as such, makes men miss a lot of good eating. Some of the best are cluttered up with antiques and collections of Aunt Sarah’s quilt designs, and if one will brave the whimsy, he may find the finest type of home cooking.” 

One of the most famous places of this character is the McDonald Tea Room at Gallatin, Missouri.


Just as Kate Cranston shaped the tearoom movement of Glasgow thirty years earlier, tea mavens such as Virginia McDonald shaped the American tea scene.  After surviving tuberculosis for seven years, and then facing the loss of her family home at the onset of The Great Depression, she mustered the strength to convert a blacksmith shop into one of the top ten tearooms in America. Before long, hungry diners beat a path to her door.


A Reviewer from The Kansas City Star reported –

Her puddings are light as summer clouds and her angel foods could be blown on a puff of a breeze. Mrs. McDonald served no beer or intoxicating drinks. Her silver was correct from the first and her china was selected from a dainty, tasteful pattern. Her linens were bright and no customer was ever expected to wipe his fingers on a paper napkin at the McDonald tearoom.

 The requests for McDonald’s recipes and tearoom advice became so great that she eventually published a cookbook entitled “How It Is Done.” 


You won’t find any scone or lemon curd recipes within its pages, but you will find instructions for making tea cookies, marmalades, sandwiches, hearty meats and casseroles, and, of course, plentiful cakes, puddings, pies, and ices. Her instructions for making iced tea were as follows:

We make our tea the cold water method. Use two ounces of orange pekoe tea to the gallon of cold water. Place tea in a loose thin bag and water in china, glass or porcelain. Let set for twenty-four hours in refrigerator. It will color up in less time but it takes this long to give it the clear brilliance of Bourbon whiskey. It never clouds nor darkens and has a fine flavor. Make Tuesday’s supply of tea on Monday and thereafter each day’s tea as needed.


Read more about America’s tea history in the upcoming edition of A Social History of Tea, by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson of Benjamin Press.

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