Artifact Corner: British Officer’s Tea Caddy

The origins of tea begin in China. According to legend, in 2737 BCE, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water, when some leaves from the tree blew into the water. Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the infusion that his servant had accidentally created. The tree was a Camellia sinensis, and the resulting drink was what we now call tea. The Camellia sinensis is a species of evergreen shrub or small tree that’s leaves, leaf buds, and stems can be used to produce tea. White tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong, and black tea are all harvested from one of two major varieties grown today of the Camellia sinensis. The leaves are processed differently to attain varying levels of oxidation with black tea being the most oxidized and green being the least. Now, it is really di cult to know whether there is any truth to the story about Emperor Shen Nung. But tea drinking certainly became established in China many centuries before it had even been heard of in the west. Containers for tea have been found in tombs dating from the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) but it was under the Tang dynasty (618-906 CE), that tea became firmly established as the national drink of China.

The word caddy is derived from the Chinese word ‘catty’, spelled c.a.t.t.y., which is a Chinese pound, or a unit of weight equivalent to 600 grams. This is also the measurement by which tea used to be sold. The English picked up the word and started using the word caddy to mean a container for tea. Tea was introduced to Europe from China in the 16th and 17th Centuries and became all the rage particularly in Britain. Tea was an expensive commodity in the 18th and 19th Century, and therefore, it needed to be stored in a way to keep it safe, hence the tea caddy. We can only imagine that the British officer who left this tea caddy behind must have been in quite a hurry, and was probably very disappointed to lose this expensive and likely treasured piece.

This tea caddy is in good condition. The lid has a crack in the veneer, but the piece is still very stable. The lead or tin lining for the tea container itself is starting to disintegrate, but given the pieces age, it’s not surprising. Also, if you have an antique tea caddy, and it is metal lined, do not store tea in it unless you are positive that the lining is not lead! You can purchase lead testing kits online, if you would like to make sure your antique caddy is safe to use. We will not be using this one, and instead, just keeping it safe. This is a beautiful piece and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
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