An elegy for Lord and Taylor—and its tea rooms

After Lord & Taylor opened its new Italian Renaissance–inspired flagship building on Fifth Avenue and 38th Street in February 1914, the legendary department store continued its reputation as a retail pioneer.

The store was built with its own electricity generator and concert hall, and in 1916, the beloved holiday windows made their debut. Later, extra mirrors were added to selling floors and dressing rooms—something now totally standard for a department store—so customers had a better view of themselves and the merchandise.

But one feature Lord & Taylor installed in the new building was definitely more old school: the in-store tea room.

Tea rooms and dining areas could be found in many stores on Ladies Mile—the trapezoid shaped enclave between Broadway and Sixth Avenue and 10th to 23rd Streets where Gilded Age women could shop, mingle, and enjoy each other’s company as they partook in the era’s consumerism. (Lord & Taylor built a magnificent store on this strip in 1870 at Broadway and 20th Street.)

As the city marched northward and department stores like Lord & Taylor relocated to Herald Square and Fifth Avenue, they brought their dining areas and tea rooms with them.

What’s so special about a department store tea room? It may sound strange to our sensibilities today, but even after the turn of the last century, women didn’t dine alone in restaurants.

The presence of a solo woman who simply wanted to rest and get a bite to eat after browsing the latest fashions might suggest she had illicit motives for being there.

And she certainly couldn’t sit at a saloon; bars were all-male preserves, and proper women didn’t drink (at least not in public).

But women shoppers needed a place to rest and refuel, especially since shopping had become something of a leisure activity, and it was one of the few activities women could do without being escorted by men.

To fill the void were confectionaries and tea rooms, some of which were inside a department store itself.

These menus from Lord & Taylor’s in-store tea room, from 1914 and 1917, can give you an idea of what (mainly) female shoppers, in groups or on their own, dined on during their shopping trips.

Much of the fare is light, and all of it non-alcoholic. Coup Julia Marlowe sound very early 1900s; she was a famous actress of the time with a spectacular mansion on Riverside Drive.

The tea rooms are gone, as is the 38th Street Lord & Taylor store. This week comes news that the company—which has its roots in a humble dry goods store opened on today’s Lower East Side in 1824—is going out of business for good.

If Lord & Taylor’s time has come, we’ll have to accept it—while remembering that in big and small ways, the store helped shape shopping habits in the late 19th and early 20th city.

[Images: NYPL Digital Collection]

Tags: , , , , , ,

22 Responses to “An elegy for Lord and Taylor—and its tea rooms”

  1. Ty Says:

    Peter McManus still has a ladies door to the “dining” area presumably so a woman doesn’t have to walk the length of the bar.

  2. thekeystonegirlblogs Says:

    Wow, that menu is really expensive! You wouldn’t get out of there for less than a dollar, but the clientele were (at least) reasonably loaded. At a low class joint you could get delicacies like steamed chops for 12 cents, and damn the cockroaches,

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I always had the sense that Lord & Taylor was luxury, but their kind of luxury was accessible to middle class and working class women. You could shop and go to the Birdcage Tea Room—which came in the 1930s, I believe—and feel rich for an afternoon. RIP indeed.

  3. VirginiaLB Says:

    The closing of Lord and Taylor is a real loss for NYC and for a place to buy well-made classic clothing, altho there wasn’t much of that in recent years. I remember their Bird Cage restaurant and going there with my mother in a suburban location. So bright and pretty! We both loved it. The last time was in the 1980s so not terribly long ago. Altman’s had a nice tea room too–Charleston Gardens. It was a place your mother took you as a special treat.

    Lord and Taylor has been a New York institution for over 150 years. What a pity it could not be saved. It will be missed by many.

  4. Greg Says:

    It was surely a happy coincidence that the names of the founders carry fortuitous associations with nobility and expert tailoring. I wonder how much that helped them last 194 years.

  5. pontifikator Says:

    I will miss Lord and Taylor’s, the place where my grandmother took me to shop for a dress for my brother’s bar mitzvah and where we had lunch in its tea room, or whatever it was called in the 60’s. We were working class, but it was a rare time to feel like swells.

  6. countrypaul Says:

    My first thought at looking at the menu prices: if that menu was today, they’d be in dollars, not cents. RIP Lord & Taylor. I’m afraid this is not this kind of situation.

  7. Barbra Hana Austin Says:

    For us, it was Dr. Lord and Professor Taylor since they performed miracles for my Mother.
    My Mom was depressed for a long time. It was back when any issues of this ilk were verboten to talk about.

    My Mother sadly suffered until she discovered that going to Lord and Taylor’s for lunch and shopping make all the difference in her life.

    Even when she did not go, she thought about it and prepared the clothes she would wear to go. This was the 50’s, and the Birdcage Room was where I found Mother smiling.
    Barbra Hana Austin

  8. Gloria Wolfson Says:

    I remember shopping here in the 50s and 60s with my mother for good clothes and coats. We always stopped for lunch and a snack. My sisters and I thought it was the height of elegance.

  9. Tom B Says:

    Did the interior of this building have unique pillars and fantastic Christmas decorations?

    • Bill Wolfe Says:

      I was never inside the New York store, but the interior of the big store in downtown Philadelphia matches your description exactly. I loved going there before Christmas to see the light-and-music show.

  10. Ty Says:

    As you all probably know Amazon is taking over the Lord & Taylor building. I finished a gig with them earlier this year at the former Orbachs building at 7 W 34. FWIW they installed floor to ceiling pictures on each floor of the actual people in the 1930s who were working in the exact same place you are.

  11. Justine N Valinotti Says:

    I was a toddler when the old Penn Station was condemned. But I remember when Donald Trump destroyed the Bonwit Teller store to build his tower. (He had the workman destroy the friezes with crowbars and jackhammers.) Though I entered it only once, I passed by it any number of times.

    I’ve walked, cycled or ridden a bus by Lord and Taylor many times, and shopped in it a few times. Once, I enjoyed a lunch there. (I don’t think their cafe was still called a “tea room” by then.) Although I am far from patrician or even affluent, and might be a borderline socialist, I am glad that opulent, elegant buildings are part of the city’s landscape, and am sad when they are destroyed or replaced. I hope Lord and Taylor’s building doesn’t meet the same fate.

    Such places–and the institutions in them, like Lord and Taylor, actually make the city more egalitarian and even human, as the beauty of their exteriors are available to the public and, unless you are destitute, you can splurge on what’s offered in them every now and again.

    The buildings constructed in their place are cold and soulless. Their glass fronts, ironically, make what’s inside them (whether merchandise or people) less visible and available to people outside them. I believe that is a result of the glass’s reflectivity, especially such buildings are in proximity to each other: They are nothing but each other’s reflections.

    Unfortunately, 57th Street, from 3rd Avenue to Broadway, has become a glacial wall of such fronts. I hope that something similar doesn’t happen to the streets around Lord and Taylor!

  12. Janet McLean Says:

    I never had the pleasure of tea in the downtown
    Manhattan store, but, loved a quiet, delicious and relaxing lunch often by myself, with friends, and especially with my elderly parents at the Manhasset store. The food was always good and it was a pleasure to recoup in a quiet, relaxing atmosphere before returning to more good shopping. Will miss it immensely.

  13. Alice Giuliano Says:

    I’ve learned there is always a chance that during liquidation proceedings, someone may well come to the rescue to buy the closing store and keep it open. My fingers are crossed that someone will come through and rescue our beloved Lord and Taylor from liquidation. Maybe, by a small miracle, Mr. Richard Baker, who is at the helm of Hudson’s Bay, the parent company, along with everyone else involved in this rash decision to close Lord & Taylor will rethink their decision to liquidate, and search for a buyer. It would be well worth it, and time well invested. I’ve shopped in Lord & Taylor for the past 53 years, and had wonderful lunches in the Tea Room. I just cannot imagine the store closing. This is shocking news I still cannot grasp, especially after a full page notice in the New York Times last month of Le Tote buying Lord and Taylor, and how they were determined to keep the stores opened. It deeply saddened me when they closed Lord & Taylor’s elegant flagship store in New York City, which had the most beautiful Christmas window displays you could ever find anywhere. To close all of the remaining stores would create a void that could never be filled.They need to turn over a new leaf, starting with finding a way to keep Lord and Taylor opened. If they keep traveling down the same road as all too many other stores that have closed, would cause the retail brick and mortar industry to become extinct. We simply cannot be solely dependent upon online shopping. Gong into a store provides a n\ice social experience, that cannot be experienced shopping online. It’s always nicer to take my purchase home, instead of waiting for it to be delivered. Clothes must be tried on for fit, style and color, which cannot happen online. Shopping at Lord & Taylor has always been a very nice experience, with a wide array of beautiful collections. I always find what I need and want.

  14. cara Says:

    There was a tea room of sorts at Lord and Taylor into the 1950s and 60s. It was called The Birdcage. My mom brought my sister and I there for lunch after we got off the Long Island Rail Road at Penn Sta. and I continued to go there as a teenager in the 60s with my girlfriends on our way down to the Village. Not really a tea room so much as a café/restaurant but they did have “tea sandwiches – four little triangular sandwiches with the crusts cut off — cream cheese and cucumber, egg salad, etc. I ordered it every time.

  15. Constance Kuppe Says:

    Wow, even into the 60’s and early 70’s, here in Minneapolis, their influence was felt. All the major department stores had tea rooms and later restaurants in their stores, for “luncheons”, only later expanding to full service and evenings. A “trip” downtown included refreshments for us kids, in store.

    Today, a Nieman Marcus sfore, in a high end location, has a “tea room” on the same floor and at the back of women’s lingerie. Wisely positioned for women or their accompanying gentleman, to have to walk through gorgeous displays of lingerie, to access
    refreshments. A twist on an older tradition.

  16. Nancy Miller Says:

    I will never forget the exquisite Lord & Taylor flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. First of all, the architecture of the building was stunning and their Christmas windows most beautiful and classic. But the best part was shopping in all the departments within the store that were beautifully displayed. And their shoe selections in the 50s & 60s were elegant. Bought my Pappagallo shoes there. Best of all was the Bird Cage Cafe on the Fifth Floor which had the most delicious tea sandwiches, and then a tea cart filled with delicious desserts was wheeled to each person to select a dessert. Also, you prepaid at the register before you took your seat. It was the best of times.

  17. Nancy Miller Says:

    I will never forget the exquisite Lord & Taylor flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. First of all, the architecture of the building was stunning and their Christmas windows most beautiful and classic. But the best part was shopping in all the departments within the store that were beautifully displayed. And their shoe selections in the 50s & 60s were elegant. Bought my Pappagallo shoes there. Best of all was the Bird Cage Cafe on the Fifth Floor which had the most delicious tea sandwiches, and then a tea cart filled with delicious desserts was wheeled to each person to select a dessert. Also, you prepaid at the register before you took your seat. It was the best of times.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: