Antiques: Booming Boxes

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When Tony Stone encounters a tea caddy—a decorative container that can fit in both hands and was designed to keep tea leaves fresh—he sees much more than a pretty little box. For Stone, a London antiques dealer, tea caddies represent the impact the beverage has had on his country. “The history of tea and tea caddies is fascinating. We lost a colony because of it—yours,” he says, laughing at his allusion to the Boston Tea Party, the 1773 tax protest that precipitated the American Revolution.


Stone believes that the finest caddies were made from 1770 to 1830, a time when, not coincidentally, tea prices were exorbitantly high. “Tea was so valuable and expensive to buy in 1770, costing something like £3 for one pound of tea,” he says, noting that a footman’s annual salary would have been about £15 then. The word “caddy” entered the English language during this era, when British tea importers adopted it from their Far East suppliers. Caddy derives from kati, a Malay word for a measurement of approximately a pound and a third.

Tea prices declined in England after 1830, transforming the beverage from a status symbol to a household staple. Consequently, caddies diminished in grandeur and eventually their production ceased completely. However, from the mid-18th century to well into the 19th century, demand for containers had prompted craftspeople to fashion miniature masterpieces. Indeed, the tea caddy proved to be an uncommonly flexible artistic medium, capable of accommodating endless designs, techniques, and forms. The boxes came in a broad range of shapes: squares, rectangles, ovals, octagons, and ellipses. Designs replicated urns, houses, sideboards, apples, pears, and melons. Some caddies were clad in such sumptuous materials as ivory, horn, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, and sharkskin, or in mahogany, ebony, Mongolian ash, and other exotic woods. Craftsmen embellished the caddies’ exteriors further with marquetry, inlay, lacquer, enamel, gilt, filigree, brass, and painted details. “It was held in great esteem, tea, and there was no end to the variations on the containers,” says Paula Hunt, a director at Mallett, an antiques firm that features caddies in its London and New York galleries. “A tea caddy was a must-have. The better-off you were, the grander it had to be.”

Today, tea caddies are seldom if ever employed for their original purpose—nor would it be advisable, considering that many of these antiques’ linings contain lead—but they have retained their allure. Bernard Karr, president of Manhattan’s Hyde Park Antiques, has a collection of 30 tea caddies decorating his Upper East Side apartment. He says that several colleagues share his fondness for them. “I’ve been to many dealers’ homes, and all of them seem to have a collection of tea caddies,” he says. Sally Kaltman, president and owner of Sallea Antiques in New Canaan, Conn., sees the artistic and practical appeal of tea caddies. “A tea caddy is a beautiful, compact piece of furniture,” says Kaltman, whose gallery specializes in tea caddies and other containers. “There’s not always room for a large object in a home setting, but there is room for a 4-by-4 box veneered in tortoiseshell.”


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