Despite growing up in the UK, I don’t actually like tea very much. I’ll drink it to be polite (with lots of milk and a couple of spoons of sugar) when the only alternative is coffee, which I despise even more, but give me a hot chocolate or a glass of juice or iced water any day.
Still, tea is still an important ritual in many British households, expatriate ones too, and it’s seen numerous times in Jane Austen’s novels when characters are invited to ‘take tea’ or are described as sipping their tea.
In Austen’s day, tea was a great deal more expensive and rare than today. Tea was imported (as it still is!) from China, which had an essential monopoly on tea until the 1840s, when it started to be cultivated in India, the origin country of most tea today. Black tea overtook green in popularity sometime in the early 18th century, and the English drank it with sugar and milk, much as we still do today.
Tea was taxed in England in the earlier part of the 18th century, leading it to becoming an expensive luxury for the rich and also creating a booming smuggling trade. When the tax was abolished in 1785, the smuggling of tea became unprofitable, but by then tea was something many of the general public had sampled and coveted as something of a status symbol which could be aspired to by anyone.
It wasn’t until the latter part of the 19th century, when Indian tea began to arrive in large quantities, that the price finally fell to become an item most could afford. Up until this point, and certainly during Austen’s time, tea was expensive enough that it was kept under lock and key by the lady of the household, leading to the evolution of the tea caddy, or the larger tea chest, as an essential item in any household of means.
The word caddy comes from the Malaysian catti, a measurement quantity equal to one and a quarter pounds of tea (approx 567 grams). Early examples were porcelain or silver jars, but these were more difficult to secure the precious tea leaves in, and soon the beautiful furniture items called caddies began to appear, wooden boxes with a lock and key. Often lined with tin to prevent oxidation, the caddies were airtight and sometimes divided into compartments, one or more for tea and one for sugar, also an expensive luxury item in the period. This lovely circa 1750 example (left) even has a secret drawer!
Others were gorgeously shaped, like this stunning pear-shaped caddy (right) made from pearwood – yes, the wood of a pear tree. The so called ‘fruit woods’ like apple, cherry, pear and rosewood were very popular as they often carried a subtle scent which infused the tea.
Later in the 19th century when tea became more affordable, tea caddies were made of papier mache, without locks, and in increasingly fantastic shapes. I’ve gathered many images of tea caddies on a Pinterest board here if anyone is interested in the many fascinating forms these household objects were made into which have turned them into beautiful, collectible and sometimes extremely valuable objets d’art.
Since the tea caddy would be on view when there were guests in the house, it was often one of the items the lady of the house would consider among her most prized possessions. Silver inlay on precious woods, tortoiseshell and mother of
pearl were used along with shaped silver caddy spoons for measuring the tea, to make the tea caddy something to really show off.
Major furniture makers like Chippendale and Hepplewhite added tea caddies to their collections for purchase, and so did premier jewellery houses like Faberge and Tiffany’s – there are examples of pieces by all these legendary makers on that Pinterest board!
Caddies were decorated too, and maybe Georgiana Darcy or another young lady of artistic bent might have whiled away hours making something like this glorious penwork caddy (left) dating from the Regency era. No doubt Caroline Bingley would have swooned over her talent!
Mrs Bennet being who she was, I like to think that she would have enjoyed serving tea from a beautiful caddy, perhaps a treasured one handed down from Mr Bennet’s mother as previous mistress of Longbourn, or a gift from her brother Mr Gardiner. With sterling silver boxes hallmarked 1758 and silver decorations, this inlaid satinwood caddy wouldn’t look out of place at Pemberley or Rosings either, or any of the great houses from Austen’s works.
Wouldn’t Caroline Bingley have been jealous when she visited for tea, to be served from an antique like this one (right), a definite reminder that while the Bingleys might have money, Mr Bennet was a gentleman.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post and learned something about the origins of the tea caddy, an originally humble item which evolved to become a status symbol and gives us some lovely works of art to admire!
Please do check out my Pinterest board, and why not tell me about which caddy you like best and who you think would have owned it in the comments below!