Take a look at an early antique tea caddy and you will immediately notice a couple of really weird things.
For one thing it will be extremely well made in fine quality wood, perhaps with elegant inlay. Even odder…..it will have a lock.
Now we all know some folk can be a bit tight but security precautions on a tea caddy?
What we have to remember is that in the 18th Century and early 19th Century tea was an expensive commodity which was only regularly drunk by the upper classes. The lower classes drank ale, and if times were hard, water.
So tea being a luxury item, the people who could afford it were not going to have the servants helping themselves. Supplies were stored in an elegant box which would stand on the sideboard. The box was locked with the lady of the house hanging on to the key.
A typical caddy opens to reveal containers for two or three different types of tea and sometimes had a glass bowl so that you could mix the blend which best suited your palate.
The earliest caddies were extremely attractive objects. Often veneered in rosewood, mahogany, walnut and satinwood or even tortoiseshell.
Whilst the most common shapes were rectangular or hexagonal boxes, sometimes in the style of an ancient burial sarcophagus, there were some quite extraordinary creations; I have seen caddies in the shape of toadstools, melons, apples, pears and any number of other fruits.
As the 19th Century wore on tea prices came down and it became a drink that could be enjoyed by simply anyone. As soon as that happened the heyday of the caddy, at least as an expensive, highly decorative object was over and although the late Victorians produced some presentable and attractive caddies, they were not in quite the same class as those produced around the turn of the 19th Century.
By the end of the Victorian age, the day of the tin caddy had arrived, caddies had become mundane, utilitarian objects which no one would have dreamt of standing on the sideboard, far less locking up.
Looking at the caddy pictured here which appeared in our Antique & Fine Art Auction on 14th February 2014, it is made from rosewood veneer in a plain rectangular form; it has a hinged lid which opens to reveal two lift out tea canisters and a central cut clear glass blending bowl. The blending bowl is original, crucial to collectors, as so many have poor quality and ill-fitting replacements. The caddy dates from the second quarter of the 19th Century and the lock is clearly visible. It has lost its four bun or ball feet, made either in turned ivory or brass, but still realised £85.00.
Originality is important as so many have been altered and adapted for other uses. There are a number of reasons why they arouse such interest today. Apart from the fact that they are pretty decorative pieces, they are also useful as jewellery boxes or for storing any manner of other things. Ironically, probably the last thing that anyone today would think of keeping in one of these attractive boxes is - tea!