I don’t know if it was my love of tea that I inherited from my Southern grandmother Ruth Sophia, or her family’s love of tea. (Aunt Kathleen and the elder Aunt Sylvia drank tea all day long in old St. Louis).
But I have been fascinated by British tea and, in fact, achieved a love affair in England for three years, after which I actually married a Scot.
I still drink my tea with milk. And I have a collection of British tea caddies and brass and bronze tea scoops.
Speculation exists amongst scholars that the history of Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries could not have been the same without the tea ( and the shadow side of the tea trade, the opiate) trade, and all the colonial interests and taxes involved.
I do know that the history of the shape of the tea caddie would have been quite different if not for the great expense of tea in the early 18th century. Tea caddies were usually handled, so the owner of the tea leaves could take them with her. They were also lockable and made of precious veneers and marquetry and sometimes edged in ivory and sterling.
Usually, they were divided into interior compartments, smaller than your fist. Tea was precious, until the mid-18th century, when the black market began to smuggle it over from China.
Tea was known to Holland and Portugal about 50 years before it was discovered by the court of King Charles II, whose wife was Portuguese. She brought it to England in the late 17th century. It was so valuable that a pause in the day was religiously followed to brew tea and to drink it with loads of sugar.
Men of the world drank tea in coffee shops, where it was hugely expensive, and ladies bought leaves in small apothecaries.
The tea trade was bound with the opium trade. The name “caddie” is in reference to the Malaysian word for 3/5 of a kilo: “kati.” Tea was exported in bottles of glass and jars of metal and shipped in straw in ballasts of vessels, until gentlemen cabinet makers in Britain began to create mahogany boxes with one, two or three compartments in which to house the glass or metal containers.
Soon the boxes were made with their own containers and compartments and began to be showy and expensive, and they were part of the tea ceremony. I learned that the simpler folk had tea caddies with two compartments, one for tea and one for sugar, lined with a tin lead alloy called “tea pewter” unless they had their own containers inside.
The wealthiest families had triple caddies, with the center having a tea bowl for mixing the different leaves on either side in a custom blend. If the tea was unblended, the glass jar was used for sugar.
Political unrest over the price of tea continued to dog the politics of Britain, until the first half of the 19th century. That’s when the country became wealthier in general and more populated, the middle class was rising, and the world of fine design was of interest to all Britons because of the architectural styles of Prince Regent George IV (who died in 1830, but whose influence was felt throughout the century).
Medical improvements contributed to the increase of the British population to 18 million — double from 50 years previously.
Trade was an opportunity to all and not just the aristocracy. Cass structures became polarized even as the middle class grew stronger, and with that every man wanted to drink tea like the upper classes did.
In 1833, Britain withdrew the monopoly of the East India Co. to import tea, reducing prices and forming new trade partners for tea with the merchants of India in 1839.
Indian tea was less expensive than Chinese tea, and the middle classes craved those little tea caddies. They hired carpenters to design them in plain wood accented with gorgeous veneers, for which process a machine was invented in the 1820s.
By the 1840s, New Zealand was added to the list of countries exporting lumber to England along with the Far East, the Islands, Africa and the Americas.
Because the veneers of the day were thicker than the veneers we now use, the edges of the caddies had to be “waterproofed” with a band of metal or herringbone inlay. Thus, the reasonably priced, veneered tea caddie with a decorative surface was born and even today is ubiquitous in the antique market.
I would put the value of the box at $100. It’s definitely a middle-class 19th-century version.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Saturdays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.