Tea, Status and Storage Part One 17th to Mid 18th Century
By Hannah Crouthamel
Brief History of Tea in England
Tea, originally used in China in the 4th century as a healing beverage, found its way to Europe in the 16th century, and to England by the early 17th century. In 1639 the “Garraways” opened by Sir Henry Garraway, governor of the East India Company, was the first coffee house to serve tea. By 1664 the English East India Company was importing tea and hailing its efficacy for curing “colds and defluxations”. By the early 18th century tea was being sold in liquid as well as leaf form in coffee houses, apothecaries, as well as in shops that catered to the female market.
Tea was very expensive. In 1665 it sold for 16 to 50 shillings a pound, that at a time when the average skilled workman earned less than 20 shillings a week. Tea was touted as a delicious beverage with therapeutic properties. It was taxed heavily and as a result came to be smuggled extensively. In 1700 only 70 pounds of tea was imported to England; by 1730 that had risen to about a million pounds. The lure of tea was extreme and by the 1730’s poor working people were partaking of the beverage, though it had been “recycled”. Servants often dried the tea leaves after they had been used and then sold them in the underground economy as did workers in tea shops. This resulted in even wider dissemination of the brew. By the middle of the 18th century, recycled tea had found its way into most corners of society, and tea could be bought by the “pinch” which made it more accessible to all classes and wove this beverage into the very fabric of English life.
By 1784, smuggling had become so widespread that the Commutation Act was passed which saw taxes reduced and the official tea price cut in half. But tea still remained expensive and smuggling still continued. However, a wider segment of society could now enjoy the beverage. In the last decade of the century more than 20 million pounds of tea was imported into England annually, Still, fresh tea remained a luxury item and the wealthy and influential still practiced an elegant ritual when preparing and drinking tea. Not only were there specially designed locked storage boxes for tea, but there were special cups and spoons, sugar bowls, tea pots, tea strainers and milk jugs, not to mention special tables and clothing (tea gowns worn between morning and evening) utilized just for tea time.
Tea Storage – Late 17th to mid 18th Century
In the 17th century, tea was stored in metal, glass, silver or china containers, In the first half of the 18th century wooden
“tea boxes” were being advertised by cabinetmakers. These tea boxes were designed to hold canisters in wood or metal. As tea was a valuable commodity, tea boxes came with lock and key, lest the tea be pilfered. In 1766 Thomas Chippendale billed Sir Lawrence Dundas Bart for “A very neat mahogany teabox with two wood canisters lin’d with lead”. The wooden interiors were lined with a tin-lead alloy to seal off the wood from the tea and keep dampness and air out. Sometimes tin or pewter boxes were fitted to the tea chests. These early tea chests were generally noteworthy because of high quality timbers and subtle forms.
Inlays were quite restrained if used at all. Most were of trunk form, on bracket feet or a molded plinth base. During the middle of the 18th century the rococo style was in vogue, so these tea chests sported ormolu mounts and feet. There were also boxes made to contain silver canisters. These boxes were veneered with exotic materials such as shagreen, tortoiseshell or ivory. The metal mounts were usually silver or gilded brass. The silver canisters were made to order by silversmiths.
Smaller tea storage devices were made in porcelain and many came from China, often matching a complete dinner service. These tea caddies are found in the Chinese export porcelain patterns of the day, including myriad patterns in underglaze blue and the popular “mandarin” patterns.
The term tea caddy was originally used to describe boxes “which did not have inner canisters, but served as containers in their own right”. Tea chests had removable containers. This distinction was important in the 18th century, but by sometime in the 19th century the term “tea caddy” came to describe both types of boxes. And that is how we continue to utilize the word. It is thought that “caddy” might be derived from the Malay “kati” which is a measure of weight — approximate 1 1/3 pounds.
My next blog will talk about tea caddies from the mid 18th century to the end of the 19th century
A great reference for further information is: Antique Boxes, Tea Caddies, & Society 1700-1880 by Antigone Clark and Joseph O’Kelly, published 2003.