The Enduring Taste for Tea

The Tea Caddy

The term ‘tea caddy’ came into use c.1800 and is derived from the Chinese/Malay word cati/catty for measurement of weight. Prior to this, they were referred to as ‘tea cannisters’ and could take a more box-like form made of wood, porcelain or metals.

These exceptional examples all date from the Georgian period, arguably the heyday of tea consumption. A pear, a melon and a barrel – they are all made of fruitwood, and retain a stunning patina. Fruit form tea caddies were extremely popular during this period, and remain highly collectible today. The barrel shape is particularly unusual, and is an interesting demonstration of the popularity of tea caddies and their use as a decorative accessory within the home and not merely functional. But how did tea become so integrated into British culture?

The Introduction of Tea

Although tea first came to England in the early seventeenth century, Catherine of Braganza, wife of Charles II, is often described as having introduced tea to Britain. With her arrival to England in 1662, Catherine brought tea drinking into the Royal court, and consequently to the elites. John Chamberlain commented in The Manner of Making Coffee, Tea and Chocolate (1685) that tea has:

‘many excellent properties, the chief of which is to make one that is drunk sober’

and that when ‘drunk with excess’ tea ‘fortifies’ the body. Prior to the introduction of tea, alcoholic drinks such as beer and ale were consumed regularly throughout the day, including at breakfast, as they were safer than drinking water or milk. Clearly, however, tea was seen as a welcome change!

Tea in the Eighteenth Century

In the first half of the eighteenth century, tea was drunk predominantly amongst the rich, who used the abundance of wares and accessories that went hand in hand, as a means of conspicuous consumption. Chinese porcelain, tea cups and saucers, milk jugs, silverware, tea caddies, tea tables, oriental lacquer furniture, sugar and sugar bowls – all were part of the social theatre of drinking tea! It was, therefore, inextricably linked with other booming trades at the time, largely of exotic goods and wares that facilitated drinking tea.

Jean-Etienne Liotard

However, by the latter half of the eighteenth century, tea drinking had been extended across all levels of the social strata. Whilst it may have initially seen as a feminine drink, as the lady of the house would be in control of the serving and it could be drunk in the parlour, a considerably more feminine space, Arthur Young complained in 1773 of:

‘the custom of men making tea an article of their food almost as much as women’.

Moreover, the French Duc de La Rochefoucald visited England in the 1780’s and wrote that:

‘throughout the whole of England, the drinking of tea is general’.
Johann Zoffany, Lord Willoughby de Broke and His Family, c. 1766.

It is evident, therefore, that tea drinking was becoming increasingly universal within the British Isles. Indeed, tea could be drunk with or without milk and sugar, and the tea leaves themselves could be dried and reused, making it suitable for the poorer section of the population to drink too. In addition, the Commutation Act of 1784 reduced the duties on tea from 119 % to 12.5%, dramatically reducing the price and increasing accessibility to tea further. The growing popularity of tea can be demonstrated by the quantity of tea brought to the Mincing Lane Auctions by the East India Company, which grew from 142,000 lbs in 1711 to 15,000,000 in 1791.

Tea continued to be a popular drink within Britain, and its everlasting importance within our culture is probably why we find its history so fascinating and the products associated with it so collectible! If you love all things eighteenth-century, click here to see our Georgian Furniture Style Guide.

Click HERE to see more of these Tea Caddies: