Book a Click & Collect appointment here COVID-19 UPDATE

The Fine Sale, Session Three: The Tea Caddy (A History of Tea in Objects, #1)

Blog by Moog


Tea is a staple of modern life: there’s nothing better than a hot cuppa on a cold day, and as we head out of Summer and into Autumn and Winter here in Canberra, we’d like to explore a unique object tied closely to the history of tea.

Our Fine Antiques Auction is exceedingly lucky to have a fine selection of items for the tea drinking connoisseur, including a Chinese Famille Rose porcelain teapot, a complete Shelley England Art Deco teaset, and a set of six George III period sterling silver teaspoons. They’re also accompanied by two excellent examples of the Tea Caddy, an object that reached the heights of its popularity in the West in the Georgian, Regency, and Victorian eras. 

The Tea Caddy was actually preceded by the Canister, a porcelain or ceramic bottle or vase shaped object with a glazed or unglazed surface and a lid used to protect loose dried tea leaves. With tea drinking such a fashionable pastime, and the sought after nature of tea itself in Europe and England especially, the Canister was an essential object. Porcelain examples from China were another level of luxury, as the production of porcelain was not mastered by the west until the 18th century (the secrets leaked by a Jesuit priest!).

MPREMAA-17.jpg[To Left: The Interior of Lot 17, a Mahogany Flame Tea Caddy; featuring its ruched velvet lining and two internal canisters as well as central well; for sale in the Fine Sale, Session Three

As tea drinking culture developed, so did the tools used in the consumption of it. Leaving behind the ceramic and porcelain canisters, silversmiths created stunning simple to elaborate canisters and boxes, crafted with the same fine intricacy and quality of a trinket or jewelry box, made to hold precious tea leaves instead of pearls and diamonds. Enterprising makers soon leaned into the small ‘chest’ shape and forms, making charming boxes with separate internal chambers and boxes for storing multiple kinds of tea leaves, such as green on one side and black on the other. It was not uncommon to see pieces made of mother of pearl or tortoiseshell, but the majority were made of timber: mahogany, walnut, oak, and rosewood all represented. The shapes were often relaxed and simple, with no feet or small bun feet or even ormolu, in rectangular, oval or circular, and the ever-popular ‘sarcophagus’ shape, with a distinctly shaped lid. Some were even free-standing, with large supportive pedestals to make them a centrepiece of their own!

[To Right: Two 'Sarcophagus' Form Tea Caddies: Lot 17 and Lot 50. The distinctive casket-like shape with squared or rectangular shaped top is a key feature.]

Two Antique Tea Caddies, both in Sarcophagus shape, one in Flame Mahogany and one with Mother of Pearl Inlay, for auction and saleOur two pieces are both examples of the sarcophagus shape, and their limited detailing is the result of Georgian Neoclassical and Regency stylings. Lot 17 features stunning flame timbers, emphasised by a simple but elegantly curved shape on small turned bun feet, and features two internal flap-lidded boxes inside which are removable. The central well in pink glass is likely a later addition, and was used for either blending the teas in one’s caddy, or storing sugar. The lining to the top, in ruched red velvet, adds sophistication and an extra level of protection to the pieces inside as well as mirroring the rich colour of the timber. Lot 50 is similar in shape, though more conventional, with delicate inlaid fretwork mother of pearl and brass tabbed sides. This caddy features three open sections for tea with no well: perhaps it once featured metal, wooden, or glass inserts to protect and contain the tea, and the lacquered appearance of the inner lid would be protective against moisture and dust.

AZQQA 135[To Left: An Antique c.1870s Pine Tea Caddy, with burr walnut veneered interior and two metal lined tea canisters, and a central well, sold for $575 in November, 2020]

The use of the tea caddy moved from the parlours and fine dining tables of the elite and into the everyday home as tea became more accessible and not just a luxury, but a staple beverage in every kitchen and home. Vintage kitchen nesting canisters always included a large container for tea (and its relative, coffee) and there are still some forms of the tea caddy in use, such as boxes made specially for boxes of bagged tea, or glass jars to show off the gamut of colours and flavours now available, and perhaps will once again reach the aesthetic heights of the antique canister and caddy. The caddy remains a beautiful and functional piece that would make a statement in any home, especially the tea lover (we’re not sure how many cups are in a caddy, but it’s gotta be a few!). 


Bid now on Lot 17, the Mahogany Caddy with Canisters and Well, or Lot 50, the inlaid Caddy with a fine and practical design, in our Fine Antiques (Session Three) sale, ending on the 9th of March, 2022, and available for viewing and inspection at The Auction Barn showrooms here at 10 Wiluna Street, Fyshwick.



Antique Ethos (N/A), 'Tea Caddy' [Online Article], England, United Kingdom, <>

Antigone (N/A), 'Antique Boxes in English Society: Tea Caddies and Tea, 1760-1900', via Hygra, London, England, <>