Tea Paraphernalia Collecting

My tea cupboard:

Enjoying tea has become much more popular in the past couple of decades.
Prior to that time about the only teas easily available for most Americans were the ubiquitous Lipton, with some stores carrying Typhoo and Red Rose and the spice-laden Constant Comment by Bigelow. Upscale stores also carried teas imported from the U.K. and specialty and ethnic stores carried teas from other countries. Many Chinese and Japanese restaurants sold teas from those respective countries, as did the stores in the ethnic sections in larger cities.

Along with the tea, there are many accessories that are more or less essential to the enjoyment of tea. They aren’t absolutely necessary but add a lot of fun to the process.
I’m not going to go into tea cups and such. I’ve never collected these items and while I have a very few that were gifts, it is the other things in the tea world that are of more interest to me.

Not everyone collects teapots. Some folks limit their collecting to various “accoutrements” that are essential to the enjoyment of tea.

Caddy Spoons
Can be one of the least expensive of tea paraphernalia to collect.
Caddy spoons were designed simply to measure the tea leaves and transfer them from the tea caddy to the pot or the blending bowl. The spoons have a wide, shallow bowl and short handles so they will easily fit inside a tea caddy. The materials from which they are made can range from gold to bamboo and even woven grass. Some are very plain, many are fancifully decorated and some are extremely elaborate. Many in the late 19th and early 20th century were provided free by tea vendors and carried their company logos and names.
Since the enjoyment of full-leaf teas has increased exponentially in recent years, so too have manufacturers and craftspeople introduced new caddy spoons. I haven’t seen any of the newer ones that have the whimsical charm of the early ones, but I’m sure they will eventually appear.


Tea Caddies
Smaller and often less expensive collectibles are tea caddies. These tea containers, designed to protect the precious contents, can range from the most simple, small tin to the large, elaborate (and expensive) wooden chests, often made of exotic woods, that began to appear in the 17th century and were “perfected” in the 18th. These had locks because tea was very expensive and were unlocked just long enough to dispense the needed amount of tea. Some of these caddies held more than one type of tea and included a bowl for blending the teas. Early on, tea was only available from China but enterprising English merchants encouraged planting of tea plantations in India and by the time Jane Austen was writing her novels, there was a clear distinction between China and India teas.
Most tea drinkers preferred their brewed tea “straight” but there were some who found a blend of the China and India teas preferable. Then, as now, personal preference trumped any imagined “rules” of tea consumption.

Small tea caddies appeared in England (and probably elsewhere in Europe) in the 17th century. These were small because tea was extremely expensive and heavily taxed.

I have a small collection of tea caddies. I did have an antique (1820-1830) wooden caddy, complete with blending bowl and caddy spoons, many years ago but sold it prior to a move to a new, and smaller, home. None that I now have are very old, or very special, but they are interesting to me. Most are “tin” or similar metal, decorated or plain. I have two that are solid copper (and require polishing to look attractive), and a very few are made of porcelain or pottery. One is glass and is cased in a perforated silver housing that also requires polishing.

Several years ago I visited a collector who had thousands of tea caddies (and the room to display them), ranging from tiny tins, that seemed appropriate for a doll’s tea set, all the way up to an enormous (and extremely rare) Chinese tea chest on its own stand with drawers as well as the main chamber for storing four types of tea. In spite of the sheer numbers, this person knew the history and value of every item in her collection. Was I envious? In a word, Yes! But not enough to expand my collection.

In the late 1990s and the first couple of years of this century there seemed to be a proliferation of caddies on eBay and other auction sites, some fairly priced and some with astronomical (to me) reserves. Still they sold. I can only surmise that these had been in various homes, sometimes unidentified as to their original purpose, until the owners began seeing others offered for sale.
Then the prices began falling off and fewer and fewer appeared for sale as the prime items were picked off, and for a few years it was difficult to find a rare or exceptional tea caddy except at some high-end antique shops.
During the past few of years the market has again become active, in spite of the recession, and I have seen some very nice caddies offered on eBay and other auction or direct sales sites at fair prices.

One caveat. There have been some modern reproductions sold to collectors, including the wooden tea chests, made by woodworkers who know how to construct these in the traditional manner and it is difficult to determine the real age – they use fittings that are period or authentic reproduction. However the glue used is modern, although it takes some expert testing to discover it.
Some of these had been deliberately and expertly “aged” to appear old and are made to deceive.
There are legitimate reproductions, that do not pretend to be old and they are priced accordingly. Those artisan makers have priced them honestly and fairly with a notice that they are new reproductions. Unfortunately, they can’t control what the purchasers do with them and some have been resold as antiques.

Even some of the metal caddies and the ceramic caddies have been reproduced in China and made to look like and are sold as antique caddies. Do some research before you buy something like this, especially on the internet. I’ve been fooled a couple of times. Look for honest wear on the caddy, if painted, the paint will be worn where the caddy was held and where the lid was fitted and removed on the metal ones. Look for wear and staining on the bottom of the ceramic caddies – if the rim on the bottom is glazed or there is no staining of scratching that shows honest wear, don’t buy it. Old ceramics did not have glazing on the bottom rim – it was left rough. Old porcelain did but there should be scratching and wear of the glaze on the foot. The metal caddies with porcelain decoration will show some crazing and patchy discoloration if they are of sufficient age – 40 years or more.
The same is true of glass and beware of any that are odd or unusual colors. Some colors were not made back in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century because the chemicals that produce the colors had not yet been formulated. Again, the foot of the caddy should show some scratching. And certainly the lids would not be fitted with a seal made of silicone! The really old glass caddies had either a ground-glass stopper or the stopper was wrapped with cork or less often, felt. Some from the late 19th century and up until WWI, were wrapped with cord that was then treated with gutta percha which looks like a black or very dark brown plastic but you can see the shape of the cord.
(I don’t have any of these – the collector that I visited has some and explained the process.)

I haven’t really done a lot of scholarly research on caddies, this is all off the top of my head but I hope if you are interested you will do some research before you jump into collecting these items.

Here are some of my collection.
I only have a few more of the pictorial caddies but I have many more of the tea merchant caddies as I have purchased teas from these for many years.
Republic of Tea and Adagio are a couple of my favorites and I have a great many of their caddies that contained their various tea blends and varieties.

Caddies in different shapes and sizes from several countries:


These are English caddies.

This one has a doggy theme:

Like most of the better tea caddies, this one has a double lid – it’s hinged and fits tightly into the tin.


A French caddy.


Two from Western Germany, ca. 1950s.
Unusual shape.


One from (guess where) Holland. It shows the crazing and discoloration of the painted surface from age. (1930s)


Caddies from various Tea Merchants.

This is a very large caddy that held Blarney Tea – 80 tea bags.
Sadly, this tea is no longer sold – it was very good.

23 Republic of Tea caddies, containing tea. (Did I mention that I drink a lot of tea?) This tea vendor sells refills for the caddies, which saves a bit of money and it’s nice to be able to re-use the container, instead of disposing of it.

A glass caddy.


An excellent resource for anyone who is interested in beginning a collection of tea caddies is this website:
Antique Boxes in English Society

And there are books, available at Amazon.com
Antique Boxes, Tea Caddies, & Society 1700-1880

Antique Boxes-Inside and Out: For Eating, Drinking and Being Merry

Many collectors specialize on the tea caddies produced by tea merchants.
There were far more tea merchants at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century than in the middle of the 20th century, especially in England.
The artwork on some of these tea tins was extraordinary and some are quite rare. Many were destroyed during the scrap metal drives during WWII and the earlier ones suffered the same fate during WWI.
It’s sad for collectors but it was an important way of recycling metal in those perilous times.


Tea Strainers

Here’s a collectible that is in the reach of just about anyone and the space required to display even an extensive collection is not that great.

I saw a very early tea strainer (in a museum) that was made with finely woven horse hair like a miniature of the “hair” strainers used in the kitchen to strain stocks and other liquids.
This may seem strange but this was before there were machines that could spin metal into very fine wire and horse hair (from the mane or tail) was very strong and would not break down when exposed to boiling liquids.

I don’t really collect these. I have a few but for ordinary use, not collectibles. One can only collect so much…

These range from fine silver or even gold, to lesser metals, china, glass and pottery, as well as bamboo and certain woods. One of the prettiest I have ever seen was carved from a small chestnut burl – a knot on a chestnut limb that was perfectly sized and shaped for the carver to produce this little gem. It wasn’t an antique, it was carved in the 1980s after some newly planted American chestnut trees began to mature in California.
(Chestnut wood was extremely scarce for almost a hundred years following the chestnut blight that destroyed most of the American chestnut trees after some Japanese chestnuts were planted in the northeast in the late 1800s.)

I have one made of silver plate that I don’t use because it begins to tarnish as soon as it comes out of its little bag. I usually use a porcelain one that has its own little saucer to catch the drips and I have one that has an attached drip catcher that swivels out of the way while the tea is being poured and hangs below the strainer when it is lifted off the cup, a very clever design.

As with many table utensils developed during the latter half of the 19th century, the Victorian strainers can be very elaborate. The Victorians did love fancy things! One strainer I saw in a collection was shaped like a peacock and had to be held carefully as the weight would tip over a delicate bone china cup. I think the oddest was one shaped like a Chinese junk and made of brass.

You can find many from the Art Nouveau period. Very elaborate, swirly flower and vine decoration, a distinct divergence from the more rigid Victorian designs.

Some that were made in the 1920s and 1930s exhibit the Art Deco influence but there are also many that have an Egyptian theme – following the discovery of the tomb of King Tut.

These are fun to collect, even with modest means and can be found everywhere, from the lowliest thrift shops to the very high end antique establishments.

And some of the newly produced strainers, infusers and etc., are attractive and fun, with some very quirky designs. This would be a good way to start collecting without spending much money.

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