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When Whimsical Anti-Theft Tea Caddies Protected the World's Most Precious Leaf

When American Colonists threw boxes of tea into Boston Harbor in 1773, they were protesting taxation without representation. But you might be surprised to learn that the tea they dumped would have been worth about $2 million in 2017 dollars! It's hard to believe how expensive tea once was, considering a teabag now costs about a penny, if you aren't too picky about the flavor. But because tea was so expensive in the 18th and 19th centuries, people kept special boxes to store it, many of them with locks. These tea caddies, made of porcelain, silver, or wood, were ornately designed to signify the value of the tea they held. Marnie Bramble collected more than 400 tea caddies, and her son Mark Bramble inherited the collection and wrote a book called A Tea Caddy Collection. He talked with Ben Marks about tea caddies.

Now, in addition porcelain from China, glazed in blue and iron-red floral and figurative designs, tea caddies were made out of German porcelain, stoneware, Jasperware, creamware, and cauliflower ware, which was a type of creamware that was molded and glazed to resemble the vegetable. Tea caddies were made of Japanned papier-mâché and also wood, from chests to fanciful fruit forms—pears, apples, pineapples, and pumpkins were popular shapes. “They are my favorites,” Mark says. “I think the fruit forms are just the best. They’re totally charming, and when you hold them, they have a warmth that porcelain does not.”

The fruit forms also lack the provenance that most ceramic tea caddies enjoy. “There’s a real mystery to those pieces,” he says. “There’s no evidence of a manufacturer’s mark on them, which gives credence to the notion that they were homemade.” Less charming is the lead-lining inside the fruit form. “Using lead seems astonishing to us, but lead protected the tea from moisture.”

Read more about tea caddies and the global tea trade that made them necessary at Collectors Weekly.

(Image credit: Benny Cuppini)


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