The earliest storage containers for tea leaves came from China. These were round, square or flat-sided bottle-shaped jars made of pottery or porcelain, and fitted with lids used to measure their contents. The term “tea caddy” emerged in the late 1700s. The word “caddy” evolved from the Malay-Chinese word kati, meaning a measure of about six hundred grams or about twenty-one ounces (1-1/3 pounds) of tea which filled a single-compartment wooden box.
Tea caddies for use in the Japanese tea ceremony were traditionally of two general types: ceramic jars fitted with ivory lids, and lacquer tea caddies which were usually fashioned in the natsume shape. Lacquer tea caddies were preferred for preparation of thin tea (usu-cha), the less formal style of preparation for powdered tea (matcha). The natsume type of lacquer tea caddy, which was named for its resemblance to the jujube fruit, became popular during the Momoyama period (1573-1615) and remains the most prevalent shape among tea caddies made by contemporary Japanese lacquerers.
Beginning in the seventeenth century many different materials were selected for making tea jars and tea caddies. Wood, silver, pewter, mother-of-pearl, papier-mache, lacquerware, and tortoise shell were used in addition to pottery and porcelain, which was the preferred medium. Tea jars produced at that time were either made in China for European export or in Europe, modeled on Chinese patterns.
After the reign of George I (1714 – 1727) tea became more readily available. This auspicious turn of events led to the development of a tea chest with two separate compartments — one chamber for storing green tea (Hyson) and the other for black tea (Bohea).
The Commutation Act of 1784 was probably the single most important stimulus in the development of the tea caddy in eighteenth-century Britian. Up to this time, tea had been so expensive that it could be enjoyed only in small quantities and exclusively by the elite, who usually kept their tea leaves in beautifully decorated canisters of silver, enamel, or ceramic that were set into finely made caskets of wood, tortoiseshell, shagreen, or other decorative material. The act reduced the tax on tea dramatically and so made it more widely available. Not surprisingly, the storage vessels for tea leaves, produced as part of the tea equipage, became more varied than ever before.
Tea caddies became more elaborate in the Regency Period (1810 – 1835). While seventeenth-century Europe favored porcelain tea caddies, the eighteenth century preference turned to caddies made of fine wood. As well as caskets with removable canisters and sometimes a central glass bowl either for the mixing of tea or for sugar (another expensive item in the tea ritual), there were now containers with one or two lidded compartments lined with metal foil. Tea caddies were made in an increasingly wide range of shapes — oval, round, octagonal, navette (oval with pointed ends or boat-shaped), serpentine, rectangular or square. Some were made in the shape of fruit and, like earlier square or rectangular caddies, were fitted with lock and key to keep the precious contents safe. The area around the keyhole was often decorated with ivory, mother-of-pearl, or metal. Typical of the last two decades of the eighteenth century were tortoiseshell contrasted with ivory, silver, cut steel, or mother-of-pearl, papier-mâché or japanned tin with delicately painted borders of classical motifs in tune with the fashionable style of Robert Adam; and silver decorated with bright-cutting or embossing. Marquetry examples represented the majority of tea caddies at this point, but there was also an interesting group decorated by amateurs in the paper filigree technique known as quilling.
Painted decoration for tea canisters and caskets had been favored at least since the middle of the eighteenth century, with examples in pottery, porcelain, opaque glass, enamels, and the japanned tin-plated iron wares of Pontypool and Usk in Wales. Tea caddies of painted wood appear to have emerged as part of the growth in tea caddy production during the 1780s, and several distinct types of decoration have been noted.
At the end of the nineteenth century Japan entered the caddy market. While modeling their tea caddies on Chinese as well as European designs, the Japanese emphasized great diversity in style and texture using lacquer (natsume), wood, and metal in exciting new ways.
In the twentieth century America’s taste returned to the more traditional silver tea caddies which were fashionable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These older styles were reinterpreted to harmonize with the fashion trends and styles of the 1920’s. Today’s preference for tea bags has virtually eliminated the necessity for tea caddies, but the current resurgence of interest in the culture of loose tea is sure to reinvigorate the public’s interest in these delightful containers.