Tea Caddies in Salem

Tea caddy early 1800s, Guangzhou, China.

Tea caddy early 1800s, Guangzhou, China.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA houses a treasure chest of historic tea wares that colorfully illustrate the art of tea in Chinese and Japanese cultures at the time of the Boston Tea Party. Originally a maritime museum, these extensive collections includes many exquisite items carried to the colonies aboard ships in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Here you will spy several tea caddies.

Caddies were important because they kept tea away from light and moisture. Also, caddies usually included a lock which deterred pilferage by servants or unsupervised guests. Until the 1830s, tea was very expensive and only affordable to the most wealthy citizens.

The word “caddy” has its roots in the Malay word “kati,” meaning about 1-1/3 pounds in weight.

Three tea caddies on view at the Peabody Essex Museum are particularly interesting.

The luxurious aspects of tea drinking in the 18th century are evident in this three-piece container. A silver filigree tea canister fits snugly into a painted ivory and mica box, which in turn is protected by a hardwood carrying case with a silver label bearing the name Souchon.

The tea was actually Souchong, one of three Chinese black teas tossed into Boston Harbor in 1773. A matching canister is labeled Hyson, one of two green teas destroyed as well.

Early 18th century Chinese caddy illustrating tea manufacture.

Early 18th century Chinese caddy illustrating tea manufacture.

As a socialized ritual, tea drinking required specialized wares that enhanced the elegance and formality of its service. This decorative lacquer box contains two pewter canisters for storing loose green and black teas. Look closely and you will see the gold designs on this box show all the steps involved in making tea from gathering to firing, drying, and sorting.

Notice that a lock is incorporated into the construction. This is typical for all tea caddies exported to European and American markets.

Japanese tea leaf jar from the late 1600s.

Japanese tea leaf jar from the late 1600s.

The word caddy did not come into use until the second half of the 18th century, so this Japanese glazed stoneware vessel from a century earlier was called a tea leaf jar when it was made. The artist was Nonomure Nimsei,  one of only a handful of 17th-century potters with name recognition.  Ninsei operated an extremely successful kiln called Omuro in Kyoto and catered primarily to important patrons in Edo. His seal is imprinted into the unglazed base of the jar.

Read more fascinating stories about your favorite beverage in A SOCIAL HISTORY OF TEA by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson, 2014 expanded edition by Benjamin Press.

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