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Tea Caddies

18th 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.

 

Wooden Caddies

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 work.

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.

 

Fruit Caddies

English fruit-shaped
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

Early 19th century tortoiseshell
tea caddies with mother-of-pearl inlay 
Late 18th century ivory tea caddies
Early 19th century
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.

 

Specialty Caddies

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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