Tea caddies of the 18th and early 19th centuries not only reflect an important and fascinating social custom, but they demonstrate the best craftsmanship in practically every decorative material and technique of the age. It is probably this, together with their endless variety, that makes them so attractive to collectors.
Tea drinking is known to have been fashionable in China at least as early as the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD), and by the ninth century the Japanese had taken up the habit and made it a ritual. It was not until the early 17th century that tea reached Europe; merchant adventurers brought it to Holland around 1610 and by the 1650's it was being sold in England with a sales pitch largely based upon it's medicinal qualities. By 1685 tea was well established as a sociable drink in Britain.
The high cost of tea made it at first available only to the rich, and at the same time conferred a social cache which was further enhanced by the example of Charles II's queen, Catherine of Braganza, an enthusiastic tea drinker. It is hard now to appreciate just how very expensive tea was to the 17th and 18th century citizen. In 1665 Thomas Garway, one of the first English tea dealers, advertised tea for sale from 16 shillings to 50 shillings for a pound in weight, and in 1716 Thomas Twining was selling tea for around 16 shillings a pound at his coffee house in Deveraux Court, just off the Strand, London. Although this represented a week's wages for a skilled craftsman, it was a good deal less than the £10 per pound that Garway claimed had been charged earlier.
Heavy import duties as well as the East India Company's monopoly on importing tea kept the price artificially high for most of the 18th century and wide spread smuggling was the result. Vigorous campaigning by the legitimate tea trade to reduce tea taxes was led by Richard Twining, grandson of Thomas, and resulted in the Commutation Act of 1784, which reduced the duty and effectively halved the price of tea, thus undermining the incentive for smuggling at a stroke. The result was a tea frenzy in which the consumption of tea doubled from 5.8 million pounds to 10.8 million in 1785.
With this explosion of tea consumption came the need for tea caddies and tea chests. From the early 18th century, lockable tea chests were produced made from wood, pewter, silver or, later in the 18th century, glass. Most of these tea chests had a set of three canisters, the two outer ones for the different kinds of tea, green and black, fermented and unfermented, the larger centre canister for sugar. It is widely, incorrectly, assumed that the centre bowl or canister was for mixing the tea when it is documented and proven that it was for sugar, which at the time, was as expensive as the tea itself.
The tea chests became known as caddies around 1775. The word Caddy came from the Malay word "Kati", denoting a measure of tea weighing about one pound, usually the capacity of a single compartment tea caddy. The explosion of tea caddy production was undoubtedly stimulated by the Commutation Act, and it continued for the next 50 years until the end of Regency period. By 1833 India had became the major supplier of tea and the East India Company's monopoly was lifted resulting in the price of tea plummeting and becoming affordable to everyone.
There is no doubt that the high point in tea caddy production was around 1790 when the finest examples were made. The use of tortoise shell, ivory, exotic woods, papier mache and silver were the order of the day. Paper filigree, shagreen, pen work, caddies made in the form of fruits and even as small miniature houses are avidly sought after by collectors of today. Whilst tea caddies were being made in France, Germany, Holland, America, Russia and China, it is the late 18th century English ones that are the prized collectible.