10th
Sep
2013

Posted in

I imagine that the majority of us keep our tea, coffee and sugar in a set of matching containers. It's a more aesthetically pleasing way of presenting them, though I have to admit to keeping mine in random unmatching containers, including an old Twinings tin for the tea; it has different scenes from the company's history printed on each side. Many still refer to the container for their tea as the tea caddy and as you might imagine the tea caddy has been a feature of the British home for a very long time.

As tea originated in China, so the word caddy has its roots in the east. It is thought to be derived from catty or kati, a unit of weight in China and south-east Asia of around one and a third pounds.  Only the wealthiest in eighteenth century British society were able to afford tea. Typically it was kept in a beautifully made caddy, a sign of its precious and fashionable status as a refreshing and therapeutic drink. The caddy would have had a lock, so that the tea could be kept safe from any potentially pilfering servants. The lady of the house would have kept the key on a chatelaine that she wore around her waist, rather like keeping your valuable items in a bum bag today!

The earliest tea caddies were brought over from China and were generally made from blue and white porcelain. British craftsmen used a variety of materials in their construction, including copper, brass, silver, wood and tortoiseshell, but as time went on wooden caddies became the most popular; mahogany and rosewood were typical. Caddies were often large and contained two or three compartments, so that you could give visitors a choice of green or black tea; the third compartment is thought to have been for sugar.

Once tea became cheaper and more widespread the demand for intricate caddies waned, and so we are left with our tins and jars – more practical for life today, but less beautiful too.

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