Tea Caddies of the 18th and 19th Century

Tea, Status and Storage Part Two – Tea Caddies of the Late 18th and Early 19th Century

This blog continues to explore tea and the development of tea caddy design from the late 18th through the 19th century.  By the early 18th century, tea had become an important part of English social life.  So it is not surprisng that by the last half of the 18th century important designers were including boxes for tea storage in their design books.  Both Thomas Chippendale and George Hepplewhite had a page devoted to tea chest design; Hepplewhite also had a page of tea caddy designs.  (As you will remember from my previous blog, tea chests had removable containers for tea, tea caddies were containers in their own right.  By the 19th century the terminology had changed so that tea caddy described both type of boxes.)  Throughout the 19th century tea caddy design evolved to reflect the changing tastes and attitudes of the era. 

The difference between the 1762 designs of Chippendale’s The Gentleman & Cabinet-Maker’s Director (see my earlier blog) and the 1788 designs from Hepplewhite’s Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide parallel the trends in style. The shapes of the  tea chests were generally similar, but Hepplewhite Teacaddyreplaced metal mounts with neoclassical inlays. His tea caddies boasted more varied shapes and sizes.

There were single, double and triple sizes. The tea chests were double or triple
sized. The double size had two compartments for two different types of tea; or one tea compartment and one recessed area which contained a glass bowl for sugar storage. The triple size usually had two compartments for tea and one for a sugar bowl, though occasionally there were three tea compartments, presumably because the owners were protesting the use of slaves in the production of sugar and were thus boycotting sugar.

The Hepplewhite style was marked by having no feet, being of square, oval, oblong, polygonal or elliptical shape. The tea caddies have straight sides, generally flat lids, though occasionally domed or concave lids are utilized. In tortoiseshell or ivory caddies the tops are sometime pyramidal. Sometimes you will find a small handle or finial on the top; keyholes are inlaid with ivory, bone or boxwood. They are enhanced by inlays of contrasting woods and sometimes embellished with engraved lines. Often the boxwood inlays are shaded by use of controlled burning in hot sand.

The interior lids in the double and triple tea chests are generally hinged, those in tea caddies are unhinged. Inlays of shells, flowers, columns, bouquets, Prince of Wales feathers, fans, birds, leaves, berries, classical figures and musical instruments are some of the popular motifs of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that were utilized to enhance the decorative appeal of these boxes. Tea caddies were made by fine cabinetmakers and displayed superb workmanship. They were prestigious items, generally located on a sideboard, symbols of wealth and sophistication.

Hepplewhite also suggested painting or penwork as a source of decoration for tea caddies. Sometimes engravings of Teacaddyclassical figures or putti were also affixed to them.

Tea caddies can also be found made in the shape of fruit – apples and pears being the most common. These are thought to have been made by country turners or even by the individual whose favorite apple or pear tree died and a useful remembrance was sought. These are single caddies, turned from one piece of wood and hollowed out for tea storage. They usually have a “stem” affixed to the top, and a simple escutcheon and key.

There are also examples that are a mixture of professional cabinetmaker and lady of the house. These are generally single tea caddies that were supplied as plain, unadorned boxes. The lady of the house would decorate them using intricately folded pieces of paper which gave a filigreed appearance to the surface. The edges of the paper were then painted to accentuate the patterns that had been created. I sold a very rare one this year that was in perfect condition because this lady of the house wanted her work to last in perpetuity and so she had each panel encased in glass, so no dust or dirt would mar her creation.

The Regency period saw tea caddies become more elaborate, yet still well balanced. Brass inlays superseded contrasting wood inlays. More complex shapes and footed boxes were designed. The sarcophagus shape, bombe shape, fielded panels, carved as well as inlaid ornamentation were some of the hallmarks of the Regency period. Steel studding was introducated. Fleur de lys motifs, as well as classical figures, Egyptian, palmette, anthemion and star motifs were favorite adornments for inlays. Penwork and painted caddies were popular – Chinese, classical, romantic or naturalistic themes were favorites.

During the 19th century lacquered tea caddies and chests were imported to England from China.  These were generally intricately gold painted boxes on black or red grounds, of various forms from square to sinuous.  The delicately painted scenes sometimes told the story of the tea harvesting and packaging process in China.  The caddies often had carved gilded feet and were lined with engraved soft metal boxes.  These interior metal boxes often had two lids, the better to keep the tea fresh.

Tea Caddies of the Mid to Late 19th Century
In 1833 as the population ofTeacaddy England was increasing and tea was in ever greater demand, the English government removed the monopoly that the East India Company had to import tea. In 1838 tea began to be imported from India for the first time. The price came down, tea consumption increased as did the demand for more caddies. With the advent of the age of industrialization, factories started to make tea caddies for the masses. But there were still extravagant tea caddies being hand made by fine craftsmen for the wealthy.

The Victorian era saw the advent of gothic shaped boxes with brass overlaid ornamentation. The more expensive boxes used burled walnut or coromandel and engraved brass adornments. Betjemann and Lund produced superb caddies, along with many other luxurious forms for the newly wealthy. Tunbridge tea caddies were also hugely popular until the 1870’s. They were embellished with complex scenes in micro mosaic inlays; landscapes, birds, flowers, animals, castles and people were all grist for their designers.

By the 1880s pre-packaging of tea, rather than selling it from large tea tins, was ubiquitous. The exclusivity of tea was no more, and – sadly- superbly crafted tea caddies were a thing of the past.

Now the elegant tea caddy is a symbol of the cabinetmaker’s finesse and expertise. It is eagerly sought by connoisseurs of craftsmanship and students of history, a timeless sculptural object that brings joy to the owner and admirer.

A superb reference on the subject of boxes is: Antique Boxes, Tea Caddies & Society 1700-1880 by Antigone
Clark and Joseph O’Kelly; publ. 2003. There are also many more tea caddies to see on our website under INVENTORY – BOXES