A brief history of tea
Tea is often thought of as being a quintessentially British drink. They have been drinking it for over 350 years. But in fact, the history of tea goes much further back.
The story of tea begins in China. Legend has it that in 2737 BC, 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 Portuguese were the first Europeans to write about drinking tea, as many Portuguese missionaries and merchants lived in Asia and brought tea back as gifts to Europe.
In the 17th century, tea was introduced to Britain from the East Indies by the Dutch East India Company, which had a monopoly on this trade as well as some of the spices now in common use. Surprisingly, the English did not gravitate towards tea immediately.
Coffee remained the preferred drink in coffee houses, which were frequented mainly by men. The tea fad caught on slowly with women who perceived it as a genteel drink. In 1657, the first shop to sell tea in England opened, run by Thomas Garraway. The shop sold tea imported by the Dutch and contributed to the rise in its popularity in London's cafes and coffee houses.
The drink gained further legitimacy when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese royal, who adored tea and introduced the concept of tea time to the court.
Soon, a key competitor to the Dutch, the British East India Trade Company established its first foothold in the East by securing a tea factory in Macao. As a result, the leaves used to make tea were an extremely expensive commodity and so had to be appropriately stored and safeguarded. The tea caddy got its name from the Chinese term 'catty' or 'catti', meaning, one pound and five ounces of tea leaves was devised for this purpose.
The first tea caddies, sometimes called tea canisters, as they were only single-compartment vessels, were often made of silver and bottle shaped with a removable top that could be used to measure tea into the pot. The simple forms of these boxes had a removable receptacle to store the tea. The larger examples housed two receptacles side by side.
The tea containers were often lined with a silver paper-like substance, or sometimes, lead, presumably to protect the tea from moisture, which induced spoilage. The tea receptacles were often separated by a glass bowl usually referred to as the "mixing bowl" or "blending bowl", the idea being that each of the two containers held a different variety of tea, and they were blended in the bowl in proportions suitable to the maker before being added to the teapot. Others, however, believe that the bowl was used for sugar.
The most common material used for tea caddies in the 18th century was silver, and in the 19th century, it was wood. Tea caddies are also commonly seen finished in pewter, ivory, tortoise-shell, mother-of-pearl, brass, copper, papier machÈ and silver. Befitting their status, the finest materials and craftsmanship were used in the manufacture of tea caddies, emphasised by the complicated shapes that were variations on a square, rectangle, or casket.
In 1784, the tax on tea was reduced from over 100 per cent to 12.5 per cent, and at the same time, the monopoly on supply of tea by the Dutch East India Company was beginning to wane. As tea grew cheaper, there was less concern with safeguarding the contents, and as a result, the use of the tea caddy slowly declined.
The tea caddy pictured is an 1892 antique George IV Rosewood Sarcophagus-shaped tea caddy. This style of caddy typically features two inner divisions and four squat bun feet, with decorative brass handles and various decorative features on the outside. A caddy such as this was a treasured and valuable piece of furniture in its own right. The lady of the house (not the servants) would keep charge of the keys to the caddy to keep its precious contents of loose tea leaves safe. The exact date and by whom it was presented to the National Collection is unknown.
Did you know?
Tea bags were created by accident. In 1904, Thomas Sullivan - an American tea merchant - invented tea bags unknowingly when he sent out samples of his tea in silk pouches. People did not know that they were supposed to empty out the pouch, so they dipped the entire pouch into boiling water. Thus, tea bags were invented and have been the popular convenient method of drinking tea ever since.
- A History of the Sale and Use of Tea in England. (1870). Licensed Victuallers' Tea Association: Southwark Street, S.E.
- Amjad. H. (2007). Elixir of Life: Meditations Over a Cup of Tea. n Published by Ayne Amjad.
Lipton. (2018). The History of Tea.
- Litchfield. F. (2011). A History of Furniture. Erscheinungsort: Bremen, Deutschland.
- Mighty Leaf. A History of Tea.
- Twinnings and Company Limited. (2018). The Evolution Of The Tea Caddy.
- UK Tea & Infusions Association. (2018). Tea - A Brief History of the Nation's Favourite Beverage.
- UK Tea & Infusions Association. (2018). Catherine of Braganza.
- Information sourced from publications and Internet, compiled by Sharifa Balfour, assistant curator, National Museum Jamaica.