ELLSWORTH — It may now be a federal crime to open mail not addressed to you, but that wasn’t always the case, said Maine author Bill Kenny.
“People would drop their mail off at the tavern and it would pile up on the table until they had enough mail to deliver.” It was implicit that those who did the delivering of mail from tavern to tavern — crammed into and on top of small stagecoaches bouncing over narrow, rutted roads — needed something to keep them busy during the uncomfortable journey, and “It was just accepted that they could read the mail along the way.”
“The mail was run differently back then,” the writer added. “The people that received the mail would be the ones that paid the postage.” Sending a letter cost roughly a day’s pay, not the few cents we pay today.
But fun facts about the postal service are just a side note in a book by Bill and his wife, Kathy, “Historic Taverns and Tea Rooms of Maine” (Arcadia Publishing, 2021).
“It was the first time in history that women were able to have a business,” said Kathy of the tea rooms that sprung up in the late 1800s. “They ran the tearooms, they planned the menus, they ordered all the food they needed … There was low overhead and there was great profit.” Women could now earn money from work that had once been unpaid, such as serving tea and making food for social functions. Tea rooms offered women a place to dine out without a male escort and played a major role in the suffragette movement, allowing women a place to organize and speak freely.
Through individual histories, accompanied by present and historical photographs, the Kennys’ book introduces readers to taverns and tea rooms throughout the state, from Bar Harbor to Bucksport, Presque Isle and beyond.
The first taverns opened in the 1700s, long before Maine became a state. Before the extension of the railroad, a journey from Boston to Ellsworth by stagecoach could take three weeks, said Bill, with coaches only able to travel roughly 10 to 12 miles before both horses and riders needed a rest. Taverns provided a place of respite, where weary horses and travelers could avail themselves of a meal and a place to rest.
Taverns quickly came to serve other roles as well, including as courtrooms and a meeting place for local militia groups.
“Government buildings were virtually nonexistent,” writes Bill, “yet it was essential for officials to conduct business and maintain laws. The practical solution was to bring government to outlying areas by a system known as ‘riding the circuit.’ By using a tavern room, they were able to hold court without encumbering great expense. It was so successful that they soon assigned the tavern yet another duty, which was as a meeting place for the local militia.” The Jameson Tavern in Freeport was allegedly the place where final papers were signed giving Maine its independence from Massachusetts (hence the name, “Freeport”).
There are a number of noted taverns and tea rooms in Hancock County, among them the Jed Prouty Tavern and Inn in Bucksport, visited by several presidents and former U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster, and the Avery House (formerly the Yellow Ball Tavern), the oldest house still standing in Castine and likely the first “drive-through” tavern in the United States, where horsemen could order a mug of rum or beer without dismounting.
Hancock County also is home, of course, to the renowned Jordan Pond House, where tea and popovers are still savored by many a visitor. The Green Mountain Tea House, once housed atop Green Mountain (now known as Cadillac Mountain), was one of the first tea houses built in the state, writes Kathy, where “Guests could take the Green Mountain Cog Railway from the base of Eagle Lake up to the summit of the mountain to enjoy afternoon tea with a spectacular view of the ocean and surrounding area.”
Tea rooms ran the gamut from the sprawling Jordan Pond House to a simple room in someone’s home. They offered a variety of teas, of course, along with “good, inexpensive lunches like salmon with egg sauce, soups and stews; sandwiches such as pimento cheese, sliced chicken or cucumber; or waffles with maple syrup.” Running such an enterprise involved “menu planning, recipes, equipment buying, portion control, accounting, the hiring of employees and the selling of products,” Kathy points out. “A skilled tea-room manager commanded respect and the admiration of all and had an enviable social position within the community.”
As a place where women could gather and speak freely, tea rooms also became hotbeds of social and political activism.
“Men would go to the tavern, drink away mortgage money, drink so much they couldn’t go to work the next day, beat their wives, abuse their children. That’s what launched the beginning of the temperance movement,” Daniel Okrent, author of “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” told TIME magazine in 2019.
“The tea room owners would sometimes put a big letter ‘T’ in the window. By doing that, most people interpreted that as a tea room — it was but it also meant it was a temperance tea room,” said Kathy, where women could gather to talk about the temperance and suffrage movements. Cups and saucers with the words “Votes for Women” were sold at tea rooms to raise funds for the movement as well.
Even the fashions in tea rooms were more relaxed. Rather than the constrictive corsets, women often donned tea gowns, which were looser and more comfortable. “Tea gowns were designed to allow the female body a freedom that Victorian dress didn’t offer,” said Kathy. “The more we looked into taverns and tea rooms the more we found.”
“Historic Taverns and Tea Rooms of Maine” is available in local bookstores and online. To order an autographed copy or buy a book directly from the authors, visit historymaine.com.