The tradition of drinking tea was brought to the British Isles in the 1600’s by King Charles and his Portuguese bride, Catherine de Braganza. The 18th century saw the birth of the industrial revolution and tea became a national drink for the British.
Tea was a precious commodity in that day, and to keep it fresh and safe, a box or caddy (from the Malay word Kati, meaning a pound) was used with a keyed lock to keep the house staff from helping themselves to the inventory. The lady of the house kept possession of the key at all times.
The earliest examples of the caddy that came to Europe were Chinese porcelain in the shape of a ginger jar. As the caddy evolved, some were very fancy, made of materials such as pewter, tortoise shell, brass, copper and silver, ebony, mother of pearl and crafted wood gadrooning with escutcheons of ivory and bone and were priced according to the materials used to fashion these boxes. They were of many different shapes and sizes such as rectangular, oval, concave, sarcophagus and most sat on bracket feet, ball feet or were simple based. The caddy was generally made with two and often three interior divisions with the center portion used to mix the teas or store sugar. The simpler boxes were generally made for the average citizens while the more exotic woods and precious embellishments were executed for the more well-to-do clientele. These special boxes were usually fashioned by skilled cabinetmakers during this time period.
Generally when shopping for a tea caddy one can expect to pay more for the unusual shapes, exotic woods and fancy inlays. English tea caddies are an interesting collectible piece because of their range of period, styles, shapes and different compositions. They have evolved into great accessory pieces for the home and used in bookshelves, on coffee tables and mantles.