Coffee came to Europe in the 17th century – first in Italy (Venice – 1629),then England (Oxford and London – 1652). Its arrival was closely followed by tea. Coffee houses served all manner of hot beverages (coffee, tea, chocolate) and were popular meeting places.
Tea arrived from China in large porcelain containers. Although tea, as a beverage, was primarily served in a coffee house an individual could purchase the leaves to brew at home – if they could afford it. Tea was very expensive to buy and heavily taxed. By 1700 lockable tea caddies had become fashionable and were created to not only preserve freshness of the tea itself but also to prevent its theft.
The earliest tea containers were from China, usually blue and white porcelain or glazed ceramic, and similar in shape to a ginger jar.
The term “caddy” was taken from the Malay kati or cati – a unit of weight equal to about 1½ lbs – it does not relate to the shape, purpose or capacity of the tea caddy itself.
A tea caddy could be any form – canister, jar, box or any other container – and made from various woods (walnut, mahogany, satinwood, rosewood), metals (pewter, brass, copper, silver) or other materials (tortoiseshell, cut glass, papier-mâché). They were often engraved or decorated with inlays of ebony, silver or bone.
The use of the stoppered jar waned as boxes became popular. It was customary for the lady of the house, rather than one of the servants, to hold the key.
The interior of tea caddies generally had two lidded compartments to keep two different teas (one green and one black) separate, but there are many examples of caddies with a dish between the compartments in which sugar, also expensive at the time, could be stored.
In the 19th century tea became less expensive due to its widespread cultivation in India and the importation of tea from India soon exceeded that from China. With time, lockable tea caddies became less important.
The picture above shows an antique (c.1860), dome top, burled walnut (burr walnut in the UK) box with two lidded, zinc-lined interior tea caddies. The decorations are brass.
As an aside, in 1908 a New York tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan created small silk bags to encase tea samples. Some clients thought this “tea bag” was a new form of infuser and thus brewed their tea this way. Sullivan very soon after began to commercially produce gauze bags which allowed for better infusion.