Antiques Obsession: Steeped in Splendor

Although now rarely used for their intended purpose, antique tea caddies still beguile thanks to their elegant craftsmanship and sumptuous materials.

Centuries before it became entrenched in everyday Southern culture, brewed tea was an indulgence enjoyed mostly by society’s elite. Imported from China and introduced to Europe in the early 17th century, tea, like the porcelains and silks traded alongside it, was considered a luxury good, accessible only to those who could afford its princely cost. Adopted by the upper classes that were eager to flaunt their wealth and gentility, tea, specifically, the drinking of it, provided an opportunity to develop a new and elaborate social custom, one which required a retinue of tableware conceived solely for serving and consuming tea in style. Often designed as matching sets, teapots, urns, cups and saucers, milk jugs, and sugar bowls were some of the pieces required for serving tea properly, as were tea caddies, essentially decorative boxes whose function was to store and protect the delicate, expensive leaves.

Almost as exotic as the precious commodity itself, the name “tea caddy” derived from the Malay word kati, a measurement of weight. Designed to safeguard tea leaves from both pilfering and flavor deterioration, early tea caddies were either small porcelain or silver containers that were stored in protective wooden chests or stand-alone boxes that were outfitted with locks. Intended to be displayed on tea tables alongside other tea equipage, caddies were considered status symbols and were thus crafted accordingly. Silver, lacquer, ivory, and tortoiseshell were just some of the luxurious materials used for these boxes. Wooden tea caddies, sometimes lined in a protective layer of lead, proved increasingly popular by the late 18th century and were often intricately finished with inlaid decorations. In fact, famed English cabinetmaker George Hepplewhite developed numerous wooden caddy designs for the British market, where tea was drunk more fervently than anywhere else in Europe.

Steeped in Splendor

Steeped in Splendor

Steeped in Splendor

Steeped in Splendor

Steeped in Splendor

Steeped in Splendor

Steeped in Splendor

Steeped in Splendor

This is a remarkable micro mosaic Tunbridge in perfect condition. The veneer has deep, original color sits on small brass ball feet, and hinges retain their shine. The bottom of the box has the maker’s name in Tunbridge Wells England. Dates about 1850. Find it at www.drjohnecrewsantiques.com/products.

Tea caddy forms were equally as diverse, although one aspect they had in common early on was their modest size, which was owing to the exorbitant cost of tea. Some were octagonal and compact, while others resembled urns or the tops of pagodas. Decorative finials crowned some caddies, while knob or paw feet could be found at the bottom of others. Curiously, some of these early caddies had an applied or incised character that served to indicate the type of tea they held: the letters “H” or “B,” which stood for hyson (green) tea and Bohea (black) tea. These two popular tea types also spurred the development of larger caddies outfitted with two receptacles inside, one for green tea and the other for black, with a recessed bowl sometimes positioned between the two. Some historians believe this basin was used for mixing the teas, while others speculate that it was meant to hold sugar, an equally expensive commodity.

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, tea became more affordable, and as the beverage was increasingly consumed by a wider swath of society, tea caddies became larger and, perhaps by 18th-century standards, less elaborately designed. But no matter the size or intricacy of detail, antique tea caddies of all varieties remain prized today. Although they may no longer be used to store tea, these caddies have become a precious commodity in their own right.

Need to KNOW

  • Meticulously crafted from the finest materials, antique tea caddies “remain a luxury item because of their beauty, craftsmanship, and scarcity,” according to William Word, antiques dealer and owner of William Word Fine Antiques in Atlanta. “Tea caddies range in price from around $500 to $7,000, depending on their size, intricacy, and rarity. Materials, age, and condition can affect the price range,” explains Word.
  • When shopping for caddies, Word advises budding collectors to “look for the quality of the inlay and how much detail the inlay has. Look for woods and materials that are rare, like rosewood, satinwood, tulipwood, elm, yew wood, bone, mother-of-pearl, and tortoiseshell. Look for the age. The smaller tea caddies are usually older than the larger ones.”
  • Most of the antique examples found today originated in England, where tea was drunk with greater gusto than elsewhere. “We find that styles from the English Regency and George III periods are more popular with our clientele,” says Word. Out of the array of materials and forms available, the dealer finds that “tea caddies with various inlays and a ‘pagoda form’ top are most desirable.”
  • Finally, Word stresses caution when collecting these antiques. “Be careful of fakes. If you come across a rare green tortoiseshell tea caddy and the price is too good to be true, most likely it is,” he says.