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century English wooden tea caddies
Tea caddies comprise the largest and most complete group
within the Sallea collection of boxes. When tea was first
used in England, it was taken only in small quantities for
medicinal purposes. Yet this single imported commodity was
destined to inspire almost two centuries of social ritual
and decorative arts. Of all the different items covered by
the term “tea equipage,” the tea caddy is the
object upon which craftsmen and artists lavished their greatest
skills and finest materials.
Today the term tea caddy denotes the entire genre of tea containers
in all styles and materials. The word caddy derives from the
Malay Chinese “kati” which means a measure of
tea weighing about a pound and one third. English usage of
the term was not widespread until the end of the 18th century,
and when introduced probably referred to the box or chest
which housed porcelain or metal bottles.
The largest and most diverse group of caddies are the wooden
boxes or chests. The high cost of tea assured its status as
a luxury item and necessitated a secure container for its
storage and display. The construction and decoration of these
containers was a reflection of the social rank of the owner.
The finest furniture makers were enlisted to produce these
boxes, each of which reflected the cabinetmaker’s best
The earliest wooden chests date from the Queen Anne period
and were generally of walnut, often sarcophagus shaped with
two or three compartments for black and green tea and sometimes
sugar. As styles changed in the 18th century, there was a
preference for smaller, single compartment boxes in square,
oval, or multi-sided shapes. Our collection includes every
popular wood veneer of the time; mahogany, satinwood, harewood
(dyed sycamore), various fruitwoods and burl walnut. Inlaid
decoration ranges from the simplest keyhole escutcheon of
a contrasting wood or ivory to elaborate neoclassical motifs
such as shells, fans, urns, birds, and florals as well as
depictions of myths and fables.
tea caddies, circa 1780-1800
Probably the most unusual type of wooden caddies are the
fruit shaped caddies. Eighteenth century oriental examples,
like the Japanese eggplant, are most prized. These pieces
typically have a threaded top which covers a tight-fitting
inner lid. European examples, usually apples and pears, have
looser hinged lids, simple keyhole escutcheons of steel, silver,
or iron, and are lined in lead foil. The finest fruits were
made in England in the late 18th century and others came from
Germany in the early 19th century. They were made of various
fruitwoods which often corresponded to the fruit they depict.
These simpler turned shapes usually have polished finishes,
but the more elaborate carved fruits, such as melons and even
pineapples, often have painted finishes. Their beautiful shapes,
original finishes, and rarity hold special appeal for collectors.
Ivory and Tortoiseshell
19th century tortoiseshell
tea caddies with mother-of-pearl inlay
18th century ivory tea caddies
red tortoiseshell boxes
Ivory and tortoiseshell were rare and exotic materials in
the last quarter of the 18th century. They were used, often
together, to produce some of the finest quality tea caddies.
The difficulty and cost of obtaining ivory and tortoise in
combination with the technical difficulties of producing and
working with pieces of veneer of any size dictated that the
designs be small in scale and/or multi-sided. To further enhance
these already sumptuous materials, both could be sculpted
to give a dimensional fluted or woven effect, and ivory could
be elaborately carved.
Early ivory caddies feature narrow strips of tortoise or horn
which outline the panels of ivory. Most have silver fittings
which can range from simple handles, keyhole escutcheons and
medallions to intricately engraved crests, piqué work
and elaborate patterns of sliver pinheads or cut steel beads.
Tortoiseshell tea caddies offer a wide variety of periods
and styles. The earlier 18th century pieces, like their ivory
counterparts, were single compartment caddies, square or multi-faceted
with straigh sides. Ivory veneeer was used as decorative trim
both inside and out. These caddies tended to rely more on
the distinctive markings and coloration of the tortoiseshell
itself rather than applied decoration.
In the early 19th century through the Regency period, tortoise
caddies generally became larger and more complicated in form.
Bombé shapes, block or serpentine fronts, casket shaped
tops, aprons and ball feet all appeared as well as the distinctive
“pagoda” form which was a reflection of the revived
popularity of chinoiserie decoration during the Regency period.
These pieces made greater use of silver stringing between
the panels of tortoise veneer. The tortoise itself was often
inlaid with patterns of mother-of-pearl or abalone shell.
Among the rarest tortoiseshell boxes are those with colored
veneers. Red and all hues of green were accomplished by staining
the lighter natural shell or lining it with colored foils.
Though dominated by wood and wood veneers, the crafting
of tea caddies embraced almost every other technique and material
used in the 18th and 19th centuries. Among metal caddies,
silver was the most fashionable and most valued. It was customary
to produce silver caddies in sets of two or three and install
them in fitted cases. Often the cases had silver fittings
and mounts, sometimes sugar nips (tongs) or spoons set into
the lid or into a drawer. Shagreen, an untanned leather, or
snakeskin was the material of choice for these cases, the
most common colors being green, black, and red.
Early 18th century silver caddies recall the shape of Chinese
tea bottles, however by 1730 the narrow necks and smaller
caps gave way to flat sliding lids. Progressively the shapes
became larger and more ornate. By the middle of the century,
bombé forms and wider domed tops with decorative finials
were the style. Some silversmiths such as Pierre Gillois of
London specialized in boxed caddy sets which are now highly
valued for their quality. During this time the fusing process
which became known as Sheffield plate was perfected, and a
great number of caddies of almost identical design and style
to the silver caddies were produced.
The form and design of silver caddies closely followed the
wooden caddies in that the neoclassical period marked a return
to simpler shapes and “bright cut” engraving which
featured allegorical figures, floral garlands and ribbons.
Bombé shapes became popular again during the Regency
period, which often had fluted details and carved finials.
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