Tea first arrived in Europe in 1610, when Dutch traders brought some back from Asia to the Netherlands. It reached England in the 1640s and soon became a fashionable drink in London, but it was not something you made at home. If you wanted to drink it in private you had to order a cup from one of the smart coffee-houses where all the new beverages – coffee, chocolate, and tea – were served.
To begin with tea was kept in porcelain jars that had travelled with it from China. Storage for tea became more and more varied once people were able to buy the leaves to brew at home. They had to be wealthy. Tea was so expensive that it was protected from pilfering. One pound (450g) could cost more than a skilled workman’s weekly wage. By 1700 well-to-do households had lockable wooden tea chests holding canisters full of the precious leaves. The lady of the house kept the key, and servants had no access.
A few tea canisters – not yet called caddies – travelled across the Atlantic with early Dutch and British migrants to North America. Matching pairs of canisters were popular for keeping a choice of teas to hand – usually green tea and black tea. Later tea chests sometimes had a third canister and/or a mixing bowl for creating your own blend.
Silver, fruitwood, and other caddies
English silversmiths soon started to make very fine caddies along with beautiful teapots, trays, caddy spoons, and other silver teaware reflecting the owners’ wealth and status. Antique silver and silver-gilt tea caddies attract high bids at auction today, with prices in tens of thousands of dollars for the best of them.
The earliest silver caddies in America were made in the first part of the 18th century – not long before a historic interruption to the growth of tea-drinking in that part of the world. Tea taxes imposed by the British government led to the Boston Tea Party, and, not surprisingly, all this discouraged American craftsmen from making caddies and other tea paraphernalia.
Today’s tea caddies belong in the kitchen, but earlier ones were for public display. A tea table was brought to the drawing room and set beside the lady of the house. A fine tea service with caddy was laid out for her, and she would take charge of preparing the luxurious beverage. In the 19th century she might have a special three-legged teapoy table or pedestal chest with her caddies stored under a flip-up lid.
Caddy designs proliferated, and most had a well-crafted lock and key. Some were chinoiserie influenced by Asian decorative arts. Furniture designers like Chippendale contributed chests and caddies in Georgian cabinet-maker style. As well as ceramic and silver caddies there were containers made from tortoiseshell, copper, painted papier-maché, glass, and exotic woods lined with foil. Ornamentation might include ivory, mother-of-pearl, enamel, or Regency penwork. Caddies covered in rolled paper filigree work were popular from about 1770 to 1815, some of them professionally finished and some bought ready for ladies to decorate at home.
One enduringly popular type of wooden caddy is carved in the shape of a fruit – often an apple or pear – and these are very sought-after today, fetching high prices, especially the earlier ones. They may be made of the fruitwood appropriate for their shape – like a pear caddy made of pearwood. They were inspired by Chinese containers in the shape of an egg plant or aubergine: a good luck fruit.
The tea caddy got its current name around 1800, from a Chinese and Malay measure of weight (cati) that was slightly more than a pound.