Tea, Trade, Customs, and Caddies
By Adele Kenny
Reprinted with the kind permission of The Antiquer: Fine Art & Antiques, May 2005.
Copyright © 2005. All rights reserved.
There is nothing more particular to the British than the colloquially termed “cuppa,” referring, of course, to the proverbial cup of tea. Tea was first imported into Europe by Portuguese and Dutch traders with regular shipments by 1610, and Portuguese Catherine of Braganza introduced it to the English court as early as 1662 when she married Charles II.
Tea imported from Portugal and Holland was served in coffee houses, similar to gentlemen’s clubs that were visited by intellectuals and “men of the world.” One of the first coffee house merchants to serve tea in England was Thomas Garway, whose establishment was located in Exchange Alley, where he sold both liquid and dry tea to the public. In an effort to maintain governmental control, Charles II attempted to forbid tea sales to private houses, and a 1676 act imposed a heavy tea tax while further requiring coffee house operators to apply for licenses.
The East India Company (formed in 1600 during the reign of England’s Elizabeth I and dissolved in 1858) was the first multinational company, and it shaped the future of world trade. The first East India shipment to England consisted of 143 pounds of tea and arrived in 1669. More than exotic commodities such as silk, porcelain, and spices, tea took England by storm and became nothing less than the central component of what would eventually become equivalent to a national icon. By 1700, over 500 coffee houses offered tea, much to the chagrin of tavern owners (whose ale and gin sales declined) and the government (which depended upon revenues from liquor sales taxes). Within a few decades, tea was no longer exclusive to the wealthy and became the favored beverage of the middle and lower classes. The “pleasure gardens” of Ranelagh and Vauxhall in London began serving tea around 1730, offering evenings of dancing and fireworks that culminated in tea – a concept that resulted in “tea gardens” that became all the rage.
London was one of the largest cities in Europe by the first half of the eighteenth century, and the East India Company was its primary employer. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the East India Company began to sell directly to the public. As trade became increasingly political, much of Asia was subjected to European domination. Colonies sprang up throughout the East, and to strengthen the East India Company’s monopoly on tea imports, Lord North passed the Tea Trade Act of 1773 (a contributing factor in the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773).
In Britain, tea consumption was heavily influenced by inflated taxes levied by the government, and tea smuggling was rampant by the second half of the eighteenth century. In fact, smuggled tea was so widely obtainable that even the most respectable people purchased it illegally. Ships from Holland and Scandinavia brought tea to the British coast, where smugglers (usually local fishermen) carried the cargo inland through hidden paths and underground passages to be secreted in such unlikely locations as local parish churches. Although smuggled tea was cheaper than legal tea, it remained expensive, and smugglers did not hesitate to add willow, licorice, sloe, and even used tealeaves to their caches as a way of increasing profits. Finally, in 1784 William Pitt the Younger introduced the Commutation Act, which dropped the tea tax from 119 per cent to 12.5 per cent, an act that, in effect, ending smuggling.
During the early 1800’s, ships carrying tea from the Far East to Britain took a year or more to bring tea from the East. By the time of Victoria’s reign, fast, streamlined ships were needed to sail into the smaller ports of Northern China, and the “tea clipper” came into being. America, Britain, and several European countries competed in tea clipper trade, and the race for speed was so important that England held an annual competition for clippers in races from the Canton River to the London Docks. The first ship to unload its cargo won bonuses for the captain and crew. The Cutty Sark, now permanently docked in Greenwich, was the most famous British tea clipper.
Tea trade with China was augmented by imports from other countries when, in 1839, the first tea was imported into England from India. Between 1840 and 1860 the tea trade in India developed rapidly, and during the 1860s tea trade with Ceylon increased dramatically.
The British custom of afternoon tea is credited to Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford (1788-1861). Early in the 1800’s, when dinner was served fashionably late, Anna claimed to experience a “sinking feeling” at about four o’clock in the afternoon and adopted the habit of drinking tea with light food at five. During the summer months, Anna resided at Belvoir Castle and invited friends to join her. The practice became so popular that the Duchess continued it when she returned to London, and the custom of inviting friends to afternoon tea became a social imperative among the elite. During the Victorian Era, working class families began to serve dinner at approximately the same time the elite took their afternoon tea. Working class dinners, the main meal of the day, became known as “high teas” because they were served at high dining tables as opposed to “low teas” that were served in sitting or withdrawing rooms on low tables.
In 1864, the woman manager of the Aerated Bread Company began to serve food and tea to her customers. As the concept spread, teashops appeared throughout Britain and were particularly popular because they provided the perfect venue for an unchaperoned woman to meet with friends and socialize without fearing for her reputation.
Throughout Britain, tea powered economics, politics, diplomatic relations, and taxation – it led to wars, became deeply imbedded in daily activities, and even generated new eating and social norms. Tea consumption was not only in vogue, it was a way of life for the British. Accordingly, a wide range of tea accouterments became de rigueur and took numerous forms: tea pots in various shapes and designs; handleless tea bowls (in the Chinese manner) that evolved into handled cups; complete ceramic and silver tea services; tea kettles and urns; and various forms of teaspoons and strainers. The British passion for tea contributed to Britain’s ascendancy in the world ceramics market as consumer demand for pottery and porcelain tea serving items was relayed to potteries in Staffordshire and elsewhere throughout the realm. Tea furniture, too, became requisite for proper hostesssing. Tea tables were first used at the end of the seventeenth century when cabinetmakers realized the market potentials of furniture designed specifically for tea taking. During the eighteenth century, cabinetmakers made specialized tea tables with fretwork galleries to spare valuable tea services from mishaps. Pembroke and breakfast tables were also used for tea taking occasions, and kettle stands were elaborately made with sturdy tripod legs that extended beyond the diameters of their tops. Hostesses kept teakettles on the stands for easy access when a teapot emptied and they needed hot water to brew another pot (economically using the tealeaves more than once). During the Victorian Era, when the practice of “low tea” was not restricted to the upper classes, small occasional tables became a social necessity. Lacquered tea tables that evoked the exotic East became trendy from the late seventeenth century through the 1820s and again during the Victorian Era when a passion for Chinoiserie was revived. During the Regency period, the “teapoy” was designed as a freestanding vessel in which a lockable tea chest was set atop a stand.
Tea trays, canisters, chests, and “tea furniture” were all important components of proper tea equipage, but tea caddies (boxes based on earlier tea chest design and intended to hold tealeaves) comprised the vanguard of accessories. The word “caddy” derives from the Malay kati, a measure of weight – about three-fifths of a kilo and roughly the amount of tealeaves that most caddies held. Under the outside lid, inner boxes or compartments, lined with tin foil or with a tin and lead alloy known as tea pewter, were made with secondary lids to keep the tealeaves fresh. Tea caddies were produced in a limitless array of forms and sizes with single, double, and triple compartments. Many caddies were fitted with two canisters to hold green and black teas with a third canister or glass bowl in the center that was used for mixing the hostess’s favorite blend.
The first tea caddies were square or rectangular, but later forms included circular, pagoda, elongated, and lobed, among others. Often the wood was enhanced by edging, stringing, or crossbanding, and marquetry was popular. Sarcophagus-shaped caddies were a popular form and were made in many varieties. Bombe, concave, and convex forms were used, and domed lids, paneling, and gadrooning were not uncommon. Some were decorated with inlaid bird, animal, and floral decoration, often with the escutcheons incorporated into the designs. Turned feet and flat, loop, or ring handles were typical. Because the precious commodity inside was costly, carefully guarded, and used sparingly, tea caddies came equipped with locks.
During the first quarter of the eighteenth century, most tea caddies were made from walnut or mahogany, some with carved decoration and metal (usually brass or silver) top handles, feet, and mounted escutcheons. Many caddies were designed to stand on bracket feet or on plinth support bases. During the 1750s and 60s, the finest tea caddies were made of silver, porcelain, or mahogany, and sometimes these materials were used in combination with one another. By the 1770s, tortoiseshell, ivory, mother-of-pearl, glass, paper filigree, and contrasting decorative woods were fashionable.
The 1784 Commutation Act had lifted heavy tea taxes and was largely responsible for the production of tea caddies through the Regency Period when imported woods from Africa and the Orient and from the Americas and Australia were used in tea caddy manufacture. Deeply toned and richly figured woods, including highly polished rosewood, kingwood, and mahogany became preferred materials and were ornamented with such decorative effects as brass stringing and roundels. Brass escutcheons in complex shapes were favored over earlier diamond-shaped bone or ivory.
Rococo caddies were designed with elaborate, gilded brass mounts that also formed the feet. Caddies in this style often had stepped lids and molded edges. Sides were straight or bombe-shaped. Embellishment in the forms of brass or silver handles, feet, and escutcheons was widely used. By the second half of the eighteenth century, esteemed English furniture makers, including Chippendale, Hepplewhite, Adam, and Sheraton, added tea caddies to their repertoires, and by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, veneers were used in abundance, including lighter-toned woods such as satinwood and stained sycamore.
Through the last years of the eighteenth century, neo-Classicism held sway and was translated into tea caddy design through straight lines and discreet decoration that featured flat central handles and fine stringing and crossbanding. Woods of choice included yew, fruitwoods, satinwood, harewood, partridgewood, kingwood, and rosewood set with thick saw-cut veneers. Standards of craftsmanship were high with meticulous attention to detail and aesthetics.
A highly collectible category of single wooden caddies was introduced during the late eighteenth century and featured fruit-shaped forms, especially apples and pears. These were somewhat crudely made and usually have iron or silver hardware. Other late eighteenth and early nineteenth century caddies were hand painted in a variety of decorative motifs that included classical swags and flowers. Hand painting and rolled paper decoration were pastimes enjoyed by the genteel ladies of “polite” society, which, when applied to tea caddies, resulted in unique and individual examples that receive high marks from today’s collectors.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the dawning Age of Industry were manifested in advancements in box making technologies that included machine-cut veneers and mass production methods. In tea caddy manufacture, materials such as mother-of-pearl, papier-mâchè, buhl, inlaid brass, straw work, tôleware, penwork, japanning, and lacquer were at the height of fashion. Mahogany veneers were seen most often along with less common use of woods such as yew. Later, other woods included bird’s eye maple and satinwood. An important tea caddy type was introduced during the early nineteenth century. Known as Tunbridge Ware, these caddies were first produced in the areas of Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge in Kent, England. Early in the nineteenth century, while the rest of England was absorbed with stylish woods, the makers in Tunbridge turned their attention to the small and meticulous, which resulted in a singular design style. Tunbridge Ware caddies were made in forms that corresponded to other popular styles of the time (with the exception of severe bombe and concave) and are characterized by rosewood veneers and parquetry decoration in geometric elongated (Van Dyke) triangles and cubes. By the 1820s small wood mosaic (micro-mosaic) had been introduced and figured prominently in the Tunbridge caddies of the 1830s. From 1840-60 floral borders based on Berlin woolwork patterns were especially popular and, later, pictorial inlays became fashionable. Most Tunbridge Ware caddies have turned feet and no handles as the latter would have interfered with the decoration that typically continued on all sides of the boxes. The skilled craftsmanship of these caddies and their visual appeal is stunning, particularly as some of the inlays convey a textural quality.
Popular architectural elements were used in tea caddy design, and the mid-nineteenth century Gothic Revival was reflected in caddies with rounded or pointed tops made in dark Coromandel wood. Distinguished by engraved or cut Gothic devices, they often featured brass strap decoration that was gilded in the finest pieces.
The second half of the nineteenth century saw the production of numerous caddies made from various woods, including pinewood with walnut veneers, and decorated with different wood inlays in geometric patterns set in strips. Most were double caddies, occasionally made with domed tops.
At the end of the nineteenth century, England’s queen was aged and ill, and the Empire was burdened by conflict and economic instability. By the time of Victoria’s death in 1901, pre-packaged tea was widely available. During the Edwardian period, tea caddies remained in limited production, and novelty pieces were made in the form of Georgian furniture and buildings. However, the sun had effectively set on the British Empire, and it was not long before the tea caddy became obsolete.
Today tea caddies are in the forefront of collectible antique boxes, and although satellite collectibles (furniture, tea services, and smalls like silver tea caddy spoons) are popular, it is the caddies themselves that generate increasingly serious interest. Values have more than doubled in the last decade, and while tea caddies may still be purchased for several hundred dollars, the finest examples are commanding prices in the thousands.