Tea Caddy: Definition and Uses (Simple But Fancy)

Tea caddy box with individual sections filled with tea bag packages.

What is a tea caddy you ask? Picture this: you have a hankering for some tea. You open your cabinet to choose from the teas in your kitchen. 

A mountain of tea boxes, canisters, and bags tumble onto your head. They crash onto the counter, then finally splash all over the floor. You need a tea caddy, my friend.

Still not sure what a tea caddy is? Let me explain a little more about what they are, how to use them, and why they are fancy but simple at the same time.

What is a Tea Caddy?

A tea caddy is a container (box, jar, tray, or canister) used to store tea. Not to be confused with a tea kettle which is used to heat water for brewing tea.

Tea caddies have been made in many different styles and shapes over time but their basic purpose has remained the same – storing precious contents of loose tea.

A Little Tea Caddy History

Why is It Called a Tea Caddy?

A tea caddy used to be called a tea canister up until the middle of the 17th century. The word “caddy” is believed to have come from the word “catty” – the name of a Chinese pound (unit of weight equal to 600 grams or about 1.3 US pounds).

The catty was the measurement used to sell tea at such high prices. This connection comes from tea’s first introduction to Europe from Asia.

When Were Tea Caddies Used?

Tea caddies have been used for a very long time. They’ve been known by this name since the 1800s. 

Where Did the Tea Caddy Originate?

Tea caddies originated in China but were quickly adapted and expanded once they reached Europe. European and English manufacturers began creating their own versions of tea caddies which were quite the high ticket item.

As such, they were only owned by the wealthiest homes and families. This eventually spread to Western countries where design and style variety further expanded.

Importance of Tea Caddies in Tea Culture

Tea was very expensive when it first arrived from China. So much so that many tea caddies, the containers meant to hold this very expensive commodity, included a lid with a lock to secure the tea inside. Consequently, tea caddies were very expensive themselves. 

Tea caddies were designed to be very fancy and ornate. They were seen as a status symbol so many people would show them off like other pieces of expensive furniture or home decor.

There were even tall, claw-foot tea caddies with exquisite exteriors made by the infamous Chippendale furniture company. These larger tea caddies were also called tea chests.

This posh storage method made brewing and serving tea an important and meticulous process back in the day. It was performed only by the lady of the house, or with her careful supervision, in a formal drawing room or reception room.

Types of Tea Caddies

Traditional Tea Caddies

Traditional tea caddies were jars or canisters similar to the ginger jar in size and shape. They were made with fine Chinese white porcelain. These early tea canisters were treated with care and passed down within families.

Traditional Chinese tea canister with blue and white design
Traditional Tea Caddy Jar

In addition to Chinese porcelain, traditional tea caddies also had Chinese-style lids or stoppers. Most were decorated with blue and white designs and held loose leaf tea.

Decorative Tea Caddies

As the popularity of the jar-shaped tea caddy lessened, it gave way to a box-shaped caddy also called a tea box. A tea box was an ornate caddy crafted with exquisite materials such as expensive wood and precious metals.

Furthermore, they included finely-detailed, artistic designs in a variety of colors. Decorative tea caddies also included luxurious extras such as a sugar bowl and the caddy spoon (used to scoop the tea) which was often made of silver. You can still find antique tea caddy spoons if you look in the right places. 

Some extravagant tea caddies would have separate lidded compartments for different teas, such as black tea and green tea, and a center compartment reserved for sugar.

Modern Tea Caddies

Modern tea caddies hold true to the box shape but are a lot less fancy. The price of tea dropped significantly as it started being mass-produced. This led to inexpensive tea caddy designs that would appeal to the masses.

Materials Used to Make Tea Caddies

The most common materials used to make tea caddies in the past were wood, metal, porcelain, and glass. Other lesser-used materials included pewter, tortoiseshell, and copper.

Decorative wooden tea chest with gold handle and detailing
Decorative Wooden Tea Chest

Popular types of wood included mahogany, rosewood, and satinwood. Mahogany and rosewood were most popular in wooden tea caddies in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Also, it was not uncommon for a wooden caddy to include knobs made of ivory, mother of pearl, ebony, or silver.

Nowadays, the most popular materials are wood and metal owing to their less expensive designs. They’ve also done away with separate compartments for different types of tea since most tea comes prepackaged now. Instead, modern tea caddies have several smaller compartments that will hold tea bags in multiple flavors.

Use of Tea Caddies

Modern tea caddies are primarily used to store and organize tea in kitchens. In the past, they’ve been used to store loose tea leaves, preserve tea’s freshness and flavor, and for decorative purposes in fancy homes. Now, you can find them in everyday places such as coffee houses and grocery stores. 

Contemporary uses of tea caddies still include organization and display of tea bags. That’s how I still use mine. However, people often find other creative ways to repurpose tea caddies as well. Here’s some examples:

Modern tea caddy box with dried fruit and flowers used for potpourri
Tea Box with Potpourri
  • Organizing small things such as jewelry, office supplies, candy, or chocolates. Yum! 😋
  • Creating room scents by filling them with potpourri or dried flowers.
  • Turning them into a planter for small plants, herbs, or microgreens.

 The Fancy but Simple Life of Tea Caddies

If you’re like me, you’ve just learned there is way more to tea caddies than you thought. You could never tell they have such a rich and fancy history by their humble and simple existence. Have you been looking for the best way to organize and store your tea? I think you have your answer now. 😉