Antiques & Collectables - Tea Caddies

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Antique tea caddies

Today we take our tea very differently to when it was first introduced in the 17th century.  At that time it was considered to be a very rare and expensive spice and was reckoned to be approved by all physicians.  This beverage was known by the Chinese as "tcha".


It was originally sold in the coffee houses by the Royal Exhange in London and its consumption spread gradually throughout the country but it remained a luxury for many years.


A heavy duty was placed on this imported commodity, to the considerable annoyance of the English and it also caused something of an upset with the colonists of America!!


By the mid 18th c. more tea was being smuggled than was legitimately imported by the ratio of almost 2:1 and the wholsale price of tea in the mid-18th c. was around  17s.6d. per pound (equivalent to £80 today). This eventually rose to around £3 per pound in 1800.


The varieties that were in greatest demand around this time was black tea: bohea, congou, pekoe and for green tea such as syngo, lyson, the price would be considerably higher.


Another interesting fact is that the increase in consumption of tea probably helped to reduce the annual death rate because as the consumption of tea rose, the habit of drinking cheap gin declined and, by the middle of the 18th century, tea became an affordable rival to alcohol in all classes of society.


Alongside this with the growing interest in tea and its high cost, there was a need to protect and secure this commodity in something convenient and yet easily accessible for conveniently dispensing - the tea caddy was born!


Originally called tea bottles or tea jars, the containers originated from China and Japan.  Caddies as we know them started to emerge from the mid-18th century.  The origin of the word caddies seems to be an adaptation of "kati" the Malay word for a measure of about 1 1/3 lbs.


Between 1750-1800 saw the height of quality in the manufacture of many articles of furniture and to make something as small as a tea caddy with enough strength to withstand everyday use and yet appear delicate, required an enormous degree of skill.


In addition to this they had to be airtight and the compartments lined with foil to avoid any damp or contamination to the high priced beverage.  A wide range of materials were used in making caddies, wood being the predominant material.  The style of the caddy reflected the fashion of the day from the severe Chippendale style to the elegance of Sheraton, leading eventually to the gargantuan proportions of the Victorian to the point where the tea container resembled a lady's work table in size and shape and given the special name of tea-poy offered compartments for up to 4 different teas and 2 bowls.


All caddies would have a lock for at £3 a pound the servants would relish a few ounces for themselves.


The main reason for the variety of  antique containers was that tea was not available pre-blended but sold loose (with today's teabags who knows what we are getting?).  Therefore, with one or two, or more, containers within your caddy you would spoon out a quantity from one or more of the selections of tea and blend according to taste or purse.  Some caddies would incorporate a blending bowl for this purpose.


By the end of the 19th century with the wider availability of tea, the price had dropped and the caddies gave way to decorated tins, many of which have now become collectors' items in their own right - but that is another story!


In the meantime, please enjoy your cup of "tcha", irrespective of what blend you may be drinking.  Maybe I will try the green syngo!!   Can you get it in pyramid bags?




Mike Hicks