In our current era of cardboard boxes and plastic packaging, caddies may seem like a peculiar and cumbersome way for anyone to store their tea. But don’t be fooled by their decorative exterior – tea caddies, while they may not look it, boast a surprisingly practical origin.
The first records of tea trade in Europe are found at the beginning of the 17th century. Catherine of Braganza is credited as having popularized tea-drinking in the British court with her marriage to Charles II in 1662. Until the middle of the 18th century, tea was a commodity rarely seen outside specialty shops and apothecaries, but its growing popularity gave rise to a robust black market that enabled its purchase by private homes. The cost was still prohibitively expensive to the lower class, which led to a desire among the wealthy to keep their tea properly stored and safe from theft.
Enter the tea caddy. The term caddy is thought to have derived from the Malay word “kati”, a unit of weight used throughout China and Southeast Asia. Early caddies closely resembled ginger jars, with a long bottle shape and pull-out stopper. These were made in a variety of materials, including glass, porcelain, and silver, and were always fitted with a keyhole. The caddy would be kept within the drawing room, and its key in the possession of the lady of the house. Whenever tea was to be served, hot water would be fetched from the kitchen, and the lady herself would take charge of its preparation.
Eventually, the canister shape fell out of popularity in favor of a box or chest design, which was the predominate form of tea caddy throughout the 19th century. These caddies were commonly constructed with two lined compartments on either side for tea storage, and a reserved space in the middle for sugar, which was also expensive. Like their bottle-shaped predecessors, chest-style caddies could be very elaborate, with mahogany and rosewood being popular materials for their construction, sometimes with ornate inlays such as brass or ivory.
As tea grew more commonplace as a household good (and subsequently less expensive), tea caddies gradually declined in production. Prepacked and bagged tea has since made the practical use of caddies obsolete, but the ones that remain are a fascinating and often beautiful window into the European tea culture of the past.
By Jen Coate
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