The Flower Pot Tea Room: A Female-Run Student Business on the Early Campus
Last summer CAP discovered the foundation/basement of a building known as Station Terrace. This building had many different uses during its approximately 40 years on campus (it was moved off campus in the early 1920s). It housed researchers from the experimental stations, served as bachelor faculty housing, rented space for East Lansing’s first post office, was a waiting room for the trolley line, and contained the female student run Flower Pot Tea Room. Station Terrace is a unique opportunity to examine a space on campus that transitioned from a male only building, to a female run business.
Early female students often get dismissed in history as just on campus for the “Mrs.” degree or disparaged for seeking a Home Economics degree that may not be understood as a legitimate course of study. A look through the archives dispels that narrative immediately, as female students at Michigan Agricultural College were held to high standards in the past and had an active role in creating and maintaining the college campus. At MSU, the Home Economics course was designed as a domestic science with the learning spaces as laboratories. A look at the Course of Study for Women at M.A.C. shows that women’s schedules were packed!
The domestic sciences were considered quite important at the college and women were tasked with the responsibilities of preparing meals for high-ranking visitors. A M.A.C. Record article written by a student and titled, “Our Cooking Laboratory” from 1897 noted that women at Abbot Hall served the members of the State Board whenever they visited the college. It appears that their creativity was encouraged, as their professor allowed them to create the appetizers and desserts for the meals to show off their progress and skills. It should be noted, too, that the cooking laboratory was exclusively the domain of female students – it is here where they experimented, measured, tested, and prepared food. It is interesting that the women refer to the space as a laboratory!
By 1912, the M.A.C. was hosting nearly month-long workshops called the Graduate School of Home Economics. An article in the M.A.C. record noted that courses in the chemistry of textiles and the physiology of the cell were scheduled alongside the principles of jelly making and costume design. Clearly the business of Home Economics is more varied than perhaps we assume.
During WWI, current and former students of the Home Economics program supported the war effort by putting on popular demonstrations of canning and food storage. The science of home economics was well-established on campus, but the transition into business management did not come until 1921 with the opening of the Flower Pot tea room (at least, this is the earliest record that we have found). MSU has a long tradition of student-run business and emphasis on entrepreneurship (in fact, modern Spartans even have the opportunity to compete for start-up funds for their businesses through a number of the colleges on campus!). The Flower Pot tea room can be understood in the history of this student-oriented business tradition, though it initially started as a alumni-owned shop. The proceeds from the tea room were allocated for the home management houses, but by 1922 the small building was taken over by the Institutional Management class of the Home Economics department. The tea room was initially run out of an old shed behind Old Horticulture, but in the fall of 1921 it was moved into Station Terrace.
An M.A.C. Record article from 1922 describes the space as, “an admirable laboratory,” likely referencing the “experiment” of having students operate the tea room and prepare all the food. In 1923 it appears that they attempted to move the tea room off campus, but it returns to Station Terrace and the alumni had relinquished their stake in the business. CAP has excavated portions of Station Terrace and will return this summer to continue exploring this space. The use life of Station Terrace is exciting for CAP to investigate, as the space was originally the province of males exclusively – in fact, it was a bachelor house! The transition from bachelor housing to female-operated tea room business in a fairly short period of time gives us clues about the expanding role of females on the historic campus. Stay tuned for more from Station Terrace as excavations get underway this May as part of the 2017 CAP field school.
MAC Record, 1896, Vol 1, Number 23
MAC Record 1921, Vol 26, Number 34
MAC Record 1921, Vol 27, Number 5
MAC Record, Vol 27, Number 14
MAC Record, Vol 27, Number 18
MAC Record, Vol 27, Number 25
MAC Record, Vol 27, Number 26
MAC Record, Vol 28, Number 16