Tea Caddies – Their Shapes, their Materials, and their Uses
If you purchase your tea at the grocery store, then in all likelihood you are buying your tea pre-packaged in paper sachets, about 20 to a neat little carboard box. While the marketing teams for the great tea industrialists of today – including Lipton, Twinings, Celestial Seasonings, and many others – go to great lengths in order to make their packaging attractive to buyers browsing the aisles of their local grocery store, it must be said that the cardboard box lacks the charm of 18th or 19th century tea caddy.
Sheffield silver plate tea caddy in knife box form with a griffin engraved on the lid. Hallmark WA, possibly William Adams. Lot 209 in our upcoming Winter Discovery sale 2020.
Fashioned of wood, porcelain, or silver, these tea caddies were made to preserve the precious quantities of loose leaf tea drunk primarily by English society prior to the rationing of WWII.
Chinese Porcelain Lidded Tea Caddy, Lot 54 in our November 2019 Discovery Sale
They could be box-shaped, spherical like a Chinese ginger jar, or crafted in the less regular shape of a knife box, such as this Sheffield Silver Plate Tea Cannister from the 19th century pictured above.
The oldest tea cannisters were made of porcelain, imported from China - as was all of the tea known to Europe in the 17th century. Several existing examples of tea caddies from the 18th century were made of wood, often inlaid with woods of different tones in order to create geometric patterns and delicate intarcia imagery. As wood, while beautifully decorative, was porous and therefore less effective to preserving the delicate tea leaves, these wooden tea caddies were often lined in lead or fitted with metal cannisters that held the tea within the box.
(2) Antique English Inlaid Wood Tea Caddies, Lot 285 of our October 2019 auction.
By the 18th century, many tea caddies were also made of silver or silver plate, as in our original example. According to an article by the Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver, the earliest such caddy was produced in 1708, although the practice did not catch on until after 1714 under George I of England.
Sheffield wares such as our knife-box shaped tea caddies were produced in the same period as other, sterling silver tea caddies, but offered “consumers a more affordable alternative to sterling silver.” Silver-plate tea caddies and other accessories to tea-time continued to be produced by manufacturers in Sheffield, England through the Victorian era, although cheaper methods of electroplating eventually led to the decline of the original Sheffield industry.
While not itself a tea-holding item, this Victorian Folding Biscuit Box is an example of silver plate Sheffield wares produced for a tea-drinking society that enjoyed a bit of something to munch on with their tea.
Sheffield Plate Victorian Folding Biscuit Box, Lot 214 in our upcoming Winter Discovery sale 2020
Nowadays, those who enjoy loose leaf teas can purchase vacuum sealed metal cannisters that safely preserve their tea for considerably longer than these antique caddies could have managed. Still, there is something timelessly charming about 18th and 19th century tea caddies and the tradition that they represent – just use them as decoration rather than as storage for an expensive leaf.
 Henrietta Lovell, Infused: Adventures in Tea, London: Faber and Faber, 2019.
About the Author
Katharina Biermann joined Oakridge Auction Gallery in the beginning of 2019, having completed her Master of Letters at the University of Glasgow in the History of Art with a specialization in Dress and Textile Histories. Ms. Biermann developed hands-on expertise of European arts and culture while interning in internationally renowned institutions including the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY. She remains particularly interested in medieval and 19th-20th century visual and material culture.