Tea was first imported into England in the 17th century and it was a very expensive commodity. It cost between £6 – £10, which put it well beyond the reach of ordinary people. While initially it would have been served only in the grand houses by the middle of the 17th century it had gained much popularity. The tea leaves had to be stored in containers to keep them fresh and the first tea caddies appeared. Early tea caddies would have had a lock and key, mainly so that the servants couldn’t steal the tea. Early tea caddies were often divided into compartments so that different varieties of teas could be stored separately.
Tea would have been served after dinner by the lady of the house to her female guests while the men were enjoying their port and cigars in another room. Tea drinking was an elegant occasion and the tea caddies were made to reflect this. Some of the finest were made from silver, ivory or mother of pearl. Where cheaper materials, such as straw or wood were used, elaborate designs and decorations were used to compensate for the less costly materials.
While silver tea caddies would have a hallmark and would be easy to date, tea caddies in other materials had no maker’s mark and you would have to look at the style and decorations to get a clue as to when it might have been made. The early Georgians had a taste for clean, simple lines and favoured plain rectangular tea caddies. By the 1740s the fashion was for Chippendale’s caddies with chinoiserie motifs. Throughout the 18th century many styles were used for tea caddies and one of the most famous was made by William Potter Cornhill in 1786 in the form of a miniature model of Carlton House, which was later the Prince Regents residence.
During the late 18th to mid 19th century wooden tea caddies in the shape of fruit became extremely popular. The most common were in the shape of apples and pears, but there were also caddies in the shape of melons and squashes. These are much rarer and therefore a lot more expensive. Many were made from fruitwood and were coloured with sponge paint effects which would have worn away quite quickly. If you can find a fruit tea caddy with some of the original paint be prepared to pay serious money, as this normally doubles the price. You would be very unlikely to find a fruit caddy for less than £1500 and some of the extremely rare caddies have been known to fetch between £15,000 and £20,000.
By the late 1800s tea drinking was no longer special. Tea could be bought ready packaged and the tea was now made in the kitchen rather than the drawing room. The fashion for tea caddies sadly came to an end, although there was still a market for collectors.
Collecting tea caddies is not cheap, although the simple wooden caddies can be had for about £200. As prices have risen so has the number of fakes on the market. If you want to buy a tea caddy you should do your research and only buy from a reputable dealer.