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Chatelaine's Antiques and Appraisals Magazine > Decorative Arts > Feature: Traditional Tea Caddies

Tea Caddies

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Tea Caddies


 Since the 17th century an important social custom for the lady of the house has been the serving of afternoon tea, using a beautifully crafted tea caddy.

 Tea was first imported into Britain in the mid 17th century (it is mentioned as a novelty in Samuel Pepys' Diary) and for a long period it was an expensive luxury - the caddy was locked to protect the contents from pilfering.

 By the middle of the 19th century, however, it was cheap enough for everyone to afford and tea had established itself as a meal between luncheon and dinner.

 The golden age of the tea caddy was the early 19th century, when tea drinking had become widespread but was still exclusive enough to bring with it a sense of occasion.

 Early caddies - known as caskets - came in all shapes and sizes. They were usually made of wood, although silver and glass were sometimes used.

 Tea was normally sold unblended and caskets generally contained two glass bottles for different types of tea - green and black - and perhaps a bowl in which to mix them, an important part of the ritual.

 Alternatively, the tea was stored in a teapoy, a table with a sliding top covering the storage compartments and mixing bowls.

 Caskets were usually quite small, reflecting the high cost of tea.  As tea became cheaper, the containers became larger, until they held up to 21b (1kg) of tea. At first two or more small caddies were housed in a casket or chest, which eventually became a single caddy.


 Early 19th-century caddies were made using virtually every decorative technique then known. Craftsmen used an amazing variety of materials, reflecting the social importance of tea-drinking at this time.

 Silver caddies, which were favoured by the rich, varied from simple rectangular boxes to very elegant urns and were often exquisitely decorated with scrollwork, chasing and beading.

 Papier-mache caddies became popular in the early 19th century. At first these were fairly simple in design, but with advances in manufacturing techniques more elaborate examples were produced, some with fine glossy finishes and lacquered mother-of-pearl inlays.


 The range of tea caddies available today is very wide. At the top of the scale are 18th-century silver caddies that only wealthy collectors can afford; at the other end of the market are tinware caddies from the 20th century, which are within the most modest means.

 Tinware examples were often give-aways advertising the firm's products. Some collectors specialize in these; others collect only caddies that commemorate great events such as the Boer War or the coronation of Edward VII.

 Late Victorian wooden caddies are cheaper than early 19th-century and 18th-century examples. Sometimes they were intended to be decorative boxes rather than functional caddies. 

Some of them were fitted with locks, even though by 1850 tea was so cheap that it was no longer kept in a locked caddy. Check that wooden caddies still have their foil linings (or their inner canisters if they are of this type), as this adds to their value.


 Caddies from before 1820 - unless they were made of porcelain or glass - were usually fitted with brass or silver locks. Late Victorian caddies were sometimes fitted with locks to make them look like pre-1820 caddies. These locks, however, were of steel.

 An extremely interesting collection can be built from 18th-century wooden caddies in the shape of fruits, such as melons or pears. However, beware of Victorian revivals of Georgian fruit-shaped caddies.

 The originals were made from beech, box, walnut or the appropriate fruitwood (an apple in applewood, for instance) with brass locks and hinges; the imitations were in varnished or painted whitewood with steel hinges.


 Papier-mache caddies were very popular and should be easy to find.  The finest examples, however, are very sumptuously decorated, perhaps with lacquering and mother-of-pearl inlay, and will be expensive, particularly if they are a matching pair.

 If you venture into the most expensive sector of the market - silver caddies - make sure that the caddy has a full set of hallmarks as well as a partial set on the lid.

 A caddy with a mark by a well-known silversmith is worth a great deal more than one by an unknown craftsman. Decorative additions, such as fine engraving or a coat of arms, make them more valuable. They were often made in pairs.


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