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A tea caddy is a box, jar, canister, or other receptacle used to store tea. When first introduced to Europe, tea was extremely expensive, and kept under the eye of the mistress of the house, often under lock and key. The containers used were therefore often expensive and decorative, to fit in with the rest of a drawing-room or other reception room. Hot water was carried up from the kitchen, and the tea made by the mistress of the house, or under her supervision.
The word is believed to be derived from catty, the Chinese pound, equal to about a pound and a third avoirdupois. The earliest examples that came to Europe were of Chinese porcelain, and approximated in shape to the ginger-jar. They had lids or stoppers likewise of china, and were most frequently blue and white. Until about 1800 they were called tea canisters rather than caddies.
Earlier tea caddies were made of either porcelain or faience. Later designs had more variety in materials and designs. Wood, pewter, tortoiseshell, brass, copper and even silver were employed, but in the end the material most frequently used was wood, and there still survive vast numbers of Georgian box-shaped caddies in mahogany, rosewood, satin-wood and other timbers. These were often mounted in brass and delicately inlaid, with knobs of ivory, ebony or silver. Many examples were made in Holland, principally of the earthenware of Delft. There were also many English factories producing high quality goods. Soon the shape was made in Chinese export porcelain and its Japanese equivalent. The caddy spoon, typically in silver, was a wide shovel-like spoon for the tea, often with a scalloped bowl.
As the use of the jar waned and the box increased, the provision of different receptacles for green and black tea was abandoned, and the wooden tea chest or caddy, with a lid and a lock, was made with two and often three divisions for the actual caddies, the centre portion being reserved for sugar. In the late 18th and early 19th century, caddies made from mahogany and rosewood were popular.
The larger varieties were known as tea chests. This term was also applied to cube-shaped wooden crates used for exporting tea overseas; and now denotes similar boxes chiefly associated with house removals.
As tea grew cheaper there was less concern with the appearance of caddies, and as a result they fell out of use, as tea was kept in the kitchen.
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- "Tea canister". Victoria and Albert Museum.