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When tea was locked in a caddie

A caddie is a small container to hold tea that has a fascinating history of about 300 years

Tea chest with tea caddies. Date: ca. 1790 (Photo: Alamy)
Tea chest with tea caddies. Date: ca. 1790 (Photo: Alamy)

Do you know the little tins that teas used to come in? They are called tea caddies. And that’s not just another word for a container, as I discovered. Like so many things about tea, these too have a long history.

The word “caddy” comes from the Malay word “kati”, which refers to a wooden chest that can hold a certain amount of tea. It seems this chest was around 1.25lbs, or around 600g.

Caddies were made in an assortment of material but it’s the wooden ones, dating back to the 18th century, that have become famous.

Tea was an expensive product, and in early to mid-18th century England, the import duty on it was a whopping 119%. Tea smuggling and adulteration were rife. The tea caddy became an important accessory, coming as it did with a lock and key.

The caddy, with its precious cargo, would sit in the main room of the house, its keys in the safe custody of the lady of the house. At teatime, hot water would be brought from the kitchen. Sometimes, the caddy had a secret compartment for a teaspoon (incidentally, invented to ensure tea could be measured precisely).

Although import duty dropped to 12.5% by the close of the century, the caddy had come to stay. It was an object of beauty that had undergone its own artistic evolution.

Some historical sources describe it in architectural terms, from the pediment and feet to the body shape, the tops and arches. The shape of the caddy varied from rectangular to oval, octagonal to concave. The tops changed from pagoda-like to domed or flat. They also came in multiple sizes: single, double and triple caddies, depending on the number of compartments. The choice of wood, too, varied from mahogany to rosewood, pinewood and walnut.

Thomas Chippendale, the famous cabinet maker, used to produce a range of wooden caddies. George Hepplewhite’s caddies would come in three shapes: square, oval and oblong. They are collectibles now.

The tea caddy evolved as artistic styles changed, and they show a mind-boggling range, from motifs carved into the wood and marquetry (carved panels placed on the wood) to veneers of tortoiseshell, ivory and mother of pearl, and a rather intriguing style called straw work. This latter was an art form popularised by French prisoners in which pieces of dyed straw were arranged to form images. The angles and shades produced spectacular patterns. For those interested in art history, the caddy can take you through 300 years.

Tea caddies became more accessible to the middle classes in the 19th century. One of the names I came across was Tunbridge Ware, made in a town near Kent, UK. These are distinct, with wood-stick mosaic marquetry on wooden caddies. The period also saw papier-mâché caddies in the chinoiserie style, with a lacquered overlay and stylised Asian motifs.

By the late 19th century, the technique of bending metal had been mastered—and metal tins were an easy replacement. The caddy became utilitarian. And it no longer needed a lock and key.

Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1

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