More than half a century ago my mother, Marnie Bramble, began collecting tea caddies. She often said that as a petite person (5'2"), she was attracted to small things and naturally drawn to the 4" to 5" highly decorative containers used for storing tea. Mother said she acquired her first tea caddy in the 1960s, without knowing what the little jar was. She was attracted to its “charming shape and size.” She soon learned that it was an 18th-century Chinese export sloped-shoulder tea caddy. Thus began her quest to collect and learn about tea caddies. She attended local auctions and estate sales up and down the Delmarva Peninsula and wherever else in the world she traveled. Mother continued searching for tea caddies up until a few weeks before her passing in 2015, at age 96.
Chinese export sloped-shoulder tea caddies lined up similar to showgirls in 42nd Street.
Set of three Georgian tea caddies, circa 1760, by Daniel Smith and Robert Sharp.
When I began traveling to put on productions of my Broadway musicals Barnum and 42nd Street, Mother enlisted me in her search for tea caddies. “Now Markie,” (she always called me “Markie”) “let me show you what I’m looking for.” We went to the cabinet where her collection was displayed, and she gave me a tutorial. “These little jars were used to store tea at a time when tea was a very precious commodity. It was as precious as gold. If you were wealthy enough to have tea, you stored it in decorative containers that would be brought to the table, and the hostess would mix the tea with hot water in the presence of her guests.” Thus began my own infatuation with Mother’s hobby. Over the years we’ve collected more than 400 tea caddies created over a period from 1700 through to the 21st century.
A selection of blue-and-white tea caddies from the collection.
English miniature cylindrical tea caddy and assembled tea service in the Prunus Root pattern, 1760-62. Miniature cylindrical tea caddies are extremely rare, and only two or three examples are known.
Homewood Museum at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore is hosting an exhibition of these tea caddies. As Precious as Gold: A History of Tea Caddies opened on November 7 and will be on view through December 30. Tea canister, tea box, and tea chest are all terms that fall into the category of tea caddy. Of all the different items used in the tea service, the caddy is the object upon which craftsmen and artists lavished their greatest skills and materials, including silver, porcelain, creamware, pearlware, papier-mâché, tortoiseshell, ivory, and fine woods. The exhibition coincides with the launch of a new book I’ve written, A Tea Caddy Collection, published by Schiffer Publishing. Using photographs and anecdotes, I write about a lifetime hobby that encompasses centuries of worldwide artistic creation.
The exhibition is set throughout Homewood Museum, a 19th-century house that is considered one of the finest examples of Federal period domestic architecture in the United States and was the birthplace of John Lee Carroll, the 37th governor of Maryland. Each room in the museum features a selection of tea caddies grouped by materials and origin, including the American Colonial and Federal eras. Fine examples of tea services, tea wares, and accouterments are incorporated into these historical rooms, including select tea caddies from the Homewood Museum collection and pieces from Stiles Colwill’s extensive collection of Maryland silver.
An English tea caddy in the form of a peach. Remarkably, the original paint, steel escutcheon, and stalk remain. There are traces of the original lead lining.
Henry Clay oval tea caddy, 1775-1800. The interior is lined with lead foil.
Maryland has rich historical connections incorporating the history of tea dating back at least to the Annapolis Tea Party in 1774, when Charles Carroll of Carrollton demanded the burning of the frigate Peggy Stewart, and the Chestertown Tea Party that same year. It’s hard to imagine that nearly 250 years ago, tea was the focus of these significant events, which, combined with the notorious Boston Tea Party, led directly to the Revolutionary War and our concepts of “taxation without representation.”
The history behind the tea caddy reinforces the overlap between art and functionality and how the culture of artistic creation is a random blend of geography, sociology, talent, and luck.
Large English wooden tea caddy in the form of a pineapple, circa 1870.
Originally published in the December 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest