The humble tea caddy: from precious beginnings to a lost treasure?

There are some words that I take for granted without knowing their origins and history.  Caddy was one such word.  It was only recently when a customer asked us to keep a look-out for vintage tin tea caddies that I realised I knew very little about where the term came from or when tea caddies were first used.

A photo of a Dodo vintage tea caddy

Our first vintage tea caddy purchase – the lovely Dodo tea caddy

A little reading around the internet (including this helpful page) opened my eyes to the importance of tea caddies in the days when tea was a precious commodity.  It’s hard to think these days that tea was once so expensive and desirable that wealthy women would keep small lockable tea caddies attached to their waists to prevent servants (or anyone else) from stealing a small amount.A photo of a wooden and chrome vintage tea caddyMy favourite example demonstrating the expensive nature of tea is from the story of Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding (first published in 1742).  After having been injured, Joseph is taken to an inn to rest.  Despite being in a bad way, the landlady refuses his request for ‘a little tea’ offering instead ‘a little beer’.  Today, this seems quite alien.  Tea is so ubiquitous in the UK that one of things you can guarantee when going around a friend’s or neighbour’s house, or even the hairdressers, is the offer of a cup of tea.  I find it particularly hard to imagine tea not being easily available, growing up in a household where tea is consumed at a rate of roughly one every few hours!A photo of orange and green vintage tin tea caddiesThere are some beautiful and very valuable antique tea caddies around – a quick search on Pinterest provides a lovely selection.  Early tea caddies were made from wood such as mahogany and birch.  Some were lacquered or even covered in straw or papier maché.  There was also variation in the number of compartments in a caddy, some of the larger ones had smaller canisters to keep the tea as fresh as possible.

I was interested to learn that the word caddy doesn’t come from a word meaning container or something similar.  It’s from the Malay word ‘kati’ which was a weight measure of about three fifths of a kilo.A photo of orange and green vintage tin tea caddiesThe tea caddies that we’ve bought over the past two years are more vintage than antique.  They’re usually from the 1940s up to the 1970s, but who knows, maybe some of them are antiques of the future!A photo of a green vintage tin tea caddyThe first tea caddy that we bought is still one of my favourites.  It has a lovely stout shape and I really liked the gold pearlescent finish to it.  It was made by Dodo Designs in Tunbridge Wells, Kent in the 1960s. I kind of wish I’d kept it as we’ve not found another one like it in almost two years.  I hope its owner in Australia is enjoying using it!

The other tea caddies that we bought early on included a pair of orange and green tin ones. They were really tall so would have been able to hold a lot of tea, maybe they would have been good with some small compartments in them.  One of them went to the US and the other went travelled not too far from here to Bournemouth.A photo of a silver plated vintage tea caddyThis silver plated tea caddy has the word ‘tea’ etched onto it.  We’ve found a few of these recently and I like their compact size. A photo of a silver plated vintage tea caddyThe tea caddy below has a lovely smooth wooden body, complemented by the chrome lid.  I actually mistook it for a biscuit barrel initially but it is a tea caddy, probably from the 1950s.A photo of a wooden and chrome vintage tea caddyOur tea caddies have proved very popular with our customers and I like to think that more and more people are taking the time to try different teas and want to store them in a way that keeps the tea as fresh as possible.  Tea might no longer be as rare or as expensive as it once was but its complex flavours and aromas still make it precious enough in my eyes to be looked after carefully!

Rach x


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