Wednesday, January 14, 2015

For the Expensive and New Beverage

Object: Tea Caddy, c. 1752
Accession #: 1900.0023a-b

Europeans were introduced to tea from China in the early 17th century. It was initially esteemed for its medicinal purposes. Later, the hot beverage was served in coffeehouses of England exclusively for the enjoyment of the gentlemen gathered there. It was not until the late seventeenth century that tea began to be served in a domestic setting and was sipped by everyone in the household alike. When tea began to be served in the home, “[the] change meant that suddenly every hostess required the proper equipment for serving the expensive new beverage, and the ownership of an extensive tea service became an important symbol of one’s social position.” In the early 18th century, serving pieces were generally made of silver while cups and saucers were made of porcelain. In 1784 La Rochefoucauld pointed out that, “It is also the custom for the youngest lady of the household to make the tea.” Expensive tea leaves were stored in a tea canister, often kept in a wooden or japanned tea chest.­ The brewing of the tea was carried out by the host or hostess, or one of the their daughters. Tea leaves were brought to the table in a small “kind of cabinet,” called a tea caddy.

One such tea caddy that was used for this purpose by an 18th-century household is this English Repousse George II Silver Tea caddy in Wilton’s collection. Made by S. Herbert and Co., its inverted pear shaped body has, on the back, a cartouche containing a tree and cartouche containing 3 trees and the phrase “patior ut potiar,” on neck of caddy. This motto roughly translates to : I suffer that I am obtain, and is that of the Spotswood family. A molded bird serves as a finial on the lid. As one historian describes,
One of the most engaging aspects of the rococo silver is the delightful rocaille heraldic engraving in which the coat of arms is displayed in an asymmetrical cartouche of pear or shell shape, surrounded by shell ornaments enriched with the airy, playful pattern of C-scrolls and delicate sprays of realistic leaves and flowers.
The inverted pear shape of this tea caddy is also characteristic of the ­­Rococo style.
As serving tea at home became popular, “silver lent importance to the new custom, as well as serving as a display of the host’s wealth.” Tea chests and caddies were also made of exotic woods such as mahogany, fruit wood, ebony, or rosewood. Tea chests were equipped with a sturdy lock, reflecting the expense of tea leaves. The guardian of the tea caddy’s key might take it everywhere with them to ensure safe keeping. The same fashions followed in the colonies so that by the middle of the eighteenth century its residents consumed a lot of tea. As in many households, the Randolph family served tea to the family as well as guests. It lent to their wealthy status as they could afford to serve their tea in silver pots after brewing it from tea leaves stored in a silver or wooden tea caddy fitted with lock and key.
Works Cited
Breed, Thomas. Tea Consumers, Tea Trade, and Colonial Cultivation. University of Minnesota: James Ford Bell Library. 16 October 2014.>

Guzler, Liza. Q&A with Liza Guzler. Williamsburg Marketplace. 16 October 2014.

Pettigrew, Jane. A Social History of Tea. National Trust Entreprises Ltd. London, 2001.
Phillips, John Marshall. American Silver. Chanticleer Press. New York, 1949.
Ward, Barbara Mclean, ed. Silver in American Life.  The American Federation of Arts. New York, 1979.
“Francois de La Rochefoucald”. Wikipedia.            <>