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Telling your Fortune in a Teacup

Within the American tea room movement of the 1920s, gypsy tea rooms emerged as a unique phenomenon with roots that extended back to the 1880s.

Many immigrant women had established fortune-telling enterprises in major American cities, but the practice had been frowned on and ordinances were enacted to ban payment for fortune-telling services. In an effort to bypass such laws, fortune-telling was moved into tea rooms where the service was offered for “free” with a purchase of 25 cents or more.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, gypsy tea rooms thrived in Boston, New York City, Cleveland, St. Petersburg, Kansas City, and Los Angeles. Chicago’s Gypsy Tea Room on West Munroe may have been the city’s first tea room, and the Garden of Zanzibar Tea Room on West Randolph Street was another early fortune-telling establishment in the Windy City.

Cartoon of a gypsy reading tea leaves
Sheet music from the 1930s.

The Bottom of the Cup, located in the French Quarter of New Orleans, began offering “fortune telling, psychic readings and good tea” in 1929. It remains a busy operation today while maintaining the distinction of being one of America’s oldest tea rooms.

I stopped in for a cup of tea at The Bottom of the Cup just a few weeks before Hurricane Katrina visited the city in 2005. I didn’t have my fortune read but they assured me that I could call back when I returned home and they would give me a reading over the telephone. I’m not sure how that works but I was fascinated by the number of long distance fortune readers they had in curtained booths in the back.

Early 20th century fortune telling teacup.

My late friend John Harney used to do tea leaf readings to the great delight of his audiences. And he would sometimes entice fellow tea author Norwood Pratt to help out. Two decades ago, John re-published the booklet “Tea Leaf Reading by a Highland Seer” with a foreword by Norwood, which reads in part:

Reading tea leaves is fun, whether you become adept at it or not. It certainly doesn’t hurt to number it among one’s social attainments and the devious will find it especially useful in courtship and other circumstances.


Read more fascinating stories about your favorite beverage in A SOCIAL HISTORY OF TEA by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson, expanded edition by Benjamin Press.

Bruce Richardson Profile Picture

Bruce Richardson

MSN calls Bruce Richardson "A leading tea expert involved in tea's American renaissance for over 30 years." The native Kentuckian is a writer, photographer, tea blender, and frequent guest speaker at tea events across the globe. He can often be found appearing on television and radio talk shows, or as a guest speaker at professional seminars such as World Tea Expo or China Global Tea Fair. He is the author ...

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