Monday, November 20, 2017

Chinese Pewter Tea Caddies



Tea is one of the great passions in Asia, with many specialized varieties of tea leaves grown, and many ceremonies and specialized utensils developed for serving and drinking it. Tea leaves could be very expensive, and the need to protect them from dust and humidity resulted in the development the storage vessels known as tea caddies or tea canisters. 

This semi-vignette was created by objects on a table waiting to be photographed.



Last week’s mystery object is a pewter egg-shaped tea caddy. Tea caddies were made in many shapes, flask and cylindrical shapes being the most common. This egg-shaped caddy is a bit of an oddity, probably intended for export. The lid flips back, and there is an inner small canister that contains the actual tea.






Congratulations to Rosemary, Mrs. D., and Anonymous, who correctly identified that this object was meant for tea storage. Some people perhaps got too interested in the novelty egg shape, which colored their guesses.

I thought that those of you who read Meg Fielding’s renowned Pigtown Design blog would all get this, as recently she has been posting about a special exhibit of tea caddies in Baltimore (running until December 31, 2017 in Johns Hopkins' beautiful Homewood Mansion Museum), and I even made a comment there about pewter examples.

As the Homewood show demonstrates, tea caddies, especially those used in Europe or America, were made in many materials, frequently ceramic, silver or wood. However, in China pewter was a common choice—it can be made with a convenient wide mouth that seals tightly, and is certainly less expensive than silver.

It is important to note that most old pewter contains lead, and while new pewter can be lead-free, I would not recommend using antique pewter containers for tea leaves or for any type of food storage.

My egg-shaped caddy looks like it could have been derived from one of the silver examples from Mark Bramble’s collection that Meg illustrated. Although this is the only egg-shaped caddy I have seen, there is a more common design shaped like a globe, with a crude map of the world engraved upon it. I have seen many of these in a broken condition, and I prefer my plain model with its smooth, gray patina.
 





This inside view of the caddy should clear up the whole mystery. Of course, caddies were usually sold empty, and while you could put whatever you wanted to in them, these were really intended for tea, and there is a large tradition behind them. Some people suggest tobacco or snuff as alternate uses, but these materials have their own traditional containers. I have often seen old tea caddies with the tea still in them, and likewise tobacco and snuff containers, but have never encountered a specialized container with the “wrong” substance in it.

Chinese pewter objects are often hallmarked, and unlike tiny silver hallmarks, the pewter ones are large (about an inch square) and usually well stamped or cast. The round shape and English spellings on this hallmark in addition to the Chinese characters are a clue to its early 20th century origin, perhaps from the 1920’s or 1930’s.
 

The hallmark on the egg-shaped caddy.





A more common shape was a pewter caddy like the above one with the top resembling a pagoda or stupa. Figural shapes were perhaps meant as novelty gift items; the pewter ones used by serious tea aficionados were often plainer in form.

One exceptional tea caddy in my collection is this giant, vase-shaped example. In addition to its outstanding patina, it features a top knob made of glowing blue Peking glass, held in place with a pewter rivet.
 

Pardon the mess; this picture was taken in the storeroom of my old apartment.


Finally, there is perhaps my favorite pewter tea canister, this plain cylindrical model. While this shape was very common, many of them have an overall embossed or engraved pattern. I prefer this plainer surface. Note, however, the high quality built into this caddy. There are simple, finely engraved double lines around the top and near where it opens. The fit of the top is so excellent that the actual dividing line between lid and caddy is hard to see. The top is not flat, but gently domed, and there is a very slight overhang which, added to the barely projecting base, lends subtle interest to the silhouette.




Old pewter is hard to photograph, at least for me. The flash or spotlight makes mellow surfaces look harsh, and magnifies each imperfection. Antique pewter left unpolished  has a fascinating soft, gray patina that is quite irresistible.



Although made of soft pewter, the fit of the lid is tight and exact—notice how shiny the protected metal still is. Also, the long overlap between lid and body helps to insure an airtight environment for the precious tea leaves inside. This is a well-designed can.

The cylindrical caddy is hallmarked both on the bottom of the can and inside the lid. This is the older style of Chinese pewter hallmark.

Tell me, do you like these pewter tea caddies, or would you prefer the ceramic or wooden models more common in the West? Of the four caddies presented here, which one would you most like to store tea leaves in, assuming they were made of modern, lead-free pewter!

=================================
P.S.  To my American readers (and all others, for that matter), Happy Thanksgiving!


All photos and objects depicted are in the collection of the author.
 

30 comments:

  1. Hi Jim: I don't know why but the first thing I thought was "Is it a tea-caddy?" but I misread something and thought you had ruled it out. Honest! This post was very informative and interesting.
    CLICK HERE for Bazza’s totally turgid Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Bazza, I can totally believe that a British reader would think of tea caddies, so I am happy to give you late credit. Do you use loose leaf-tea yourself? --Jim

      Delete
    2. Loose-leaf is very hard to find these days but we do use it when we can. For everyday use we get by brewing with Yorkshire tea.

      Delete
    3. Loose tea of many varieties is of course very easy to get in Taiwan. My dark secret is that sometimes in the morning when I am too tired to care I use a cheap teabag instead. --Jim

      Delete
  2. I sure am glad you allow me to guess 1,2,3, sometimes 4 times! Jim, the best clue was given by you. When I guessed, a serving dish, you answered, not in the way a serving dish is used at a table, not to eat from. Well that sure put to rest my guess of "eating chilled monkey brains" as in the Indiana Jones movie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Linda, With all of your forays into the old fashioned ways of doing things, I am not surprised that you eventually realized the answer. I am no expert, but I thought that monkey brains were supposed to be eaten directly from the opened skull. Vegetarianism never looked better! --Jim

      Delete
    2. Hi Jim. You should look at the scene from the Indiana Jones movie (online). Definitely, the monkey's skull was served in a gobblet type serving dish. P.S. If you can answer my email about a mystery object I am planning, I want to provide a link to your blog.

      Delete
  3. I ADORE THEM ALL..................but if I had to choose it would be THE EGG!
    Once again your email did not arrive to me in my inbox!
    THANK you for sending!!!!!!!!
    I will send your post on to another COLLECTOR of all things OLD!
    XX

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Contessa, Yes, the egg one does have a lot of personality. I have written to Blogger about the emails, but this does not seem to be a priority for them! Thanks, Jim

      Delete
  4. Thanks so much for the mention! Mark doesn't have anything like this in his vast collection, so it's fun to see it. For those near Baltimore, I can't recommend this exhibit highly enough. Not only is the collection amazing, but the house is a stunner.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Meg, I'm the one who needs to thank you and Mark for starting this interesting topic. I enjoy these pewter caddies, but Mark's collection is truly stunning. I very much regret being so far away that I cannot attend the display.

      For everyone else, once you click onto the Homewood Tea Caddy page, be sure to check out the house's history, which I know would fascinate many of the readers here. --Jim

      Delete
  5. Hello Jim - I was still mulling over the answer to your quiz whilst replying in comments, and suddenly it struck me that it would make a perfect tea caddy.
    I like your 'egg' caddy best, but also find that the stupa one is rather an intriguing design.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Rosemary, You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned tea caddy. One odd thing about the egg caddy is the small size of the inner container. Of course, some teas are very expensive, and this would add to the presentation. I have seen a number of the 'stupa' caddies--they look well massed together, or mixed with other types, but this was the only older one I found at a reasonable price. --Jim

      Delete
  6. Well, Jim, thanks so much for the lesson in pewter tea caddies. I had no idea such caddies were made of pewter (and why wouldn't they be?). My favorite is the simple one you favor too. I like its honest and timeless design.

    I don't own any antique tea caddies but have always admired the Georgian and Regency wooden caddies with the glass mixing bowl within.

    Thanks for the fun mystery object game. You are a master of them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello CD, I am glad you enjoyed the mystery object. I thought tea containers would be your kind of thing. Some of the ceramic caddies are actually made of pewter with ceramic inserts. I too love the early wooden ones, beautiful displays of fine cabinetwork in miniature.

      Now I'll have to do some "real" posts before it is time for another mystery. --Jim

      Delete
  7. I read Meg's blog but was way off! I love pewter so based on that i prefer those - but i love the sculptural element of these. I might pick one up similar when I go there!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Naomi, I'm not quite sure what you mean by these and those. The ones that Mark collected are truly museum-worthy, but they are mostly export pieces, and are thus relatively available in the west. In China, many types were used, not only pewter of course, but the pewter ones are very typical of China. --Jim

      Delete
  8. Dearest Jim,
    Wow, why oh why did I not think of tea?
    Did figure out that the lid would tilt backwards to ope and that's about it...
    As for selecting a favorite here, it is your very mystery object that I like most.
    You must have many objects of museum quality and I love the way you show them and display.
    Sending you hugs,
    Mariette

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Mariette, Your first few words were coincidental, because one of the books I brought this year is called "To Think of Tea!" Apparently, that is good advice!

      The egg-shaped caddy does have a wonderful sculptural form. Its base gives it extra height which means that it will display well, even when placed in back of other items. Although it is blessed with extra height, it is still nowhere near the size of the huge vase-shaped one. --Jim



      Delete
  9. 你對中國文化很精通。我衷心佩服你!I believe the alphabets in the mark are Kantonese.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello rtc., Thank you for your kind words! Yes, the "Caton" in the mark is obviously an error for "Canton", from where many export products arose. I have come across an almost identical mark, but cannot remember offhand whether the "Canton" was misspelled or not. --Jim

      Delete
  10. Dear Jim,
    I am not sure why but I love all things egg-shaped so your pewter tea caddy made me quite envious. Both sides of my family are from Shanghai (leaving after WWII); taking ( well really escaping) with whatever was portable and valuable. My grandparents gave me jewelry, silver, and ivory but no tea caddies. So I make do with tin canisters often from the original tea sellers. Thank you for sharing your lovely collection with us.
    Best,
    KL Gaylin

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello K.L. Gaylin, I am sure that pewter objects were heavy and bulky, not to mention relatively non-precious, so I can see why your grandparents left them behind. As I mentioned above, I would not use old pewter for anything edible. Although the fancy department stores here do have beautiful tea accoutrements, often at reasonable prices, my drinking tea also resides in the original packages from the sellers. --Jim

      Delete
  11. Replies
    1. Hello rtc, Happy Holidays to you, also! --Jim

      Delete
  12. Since you are ahead of us dear Jim, wishing you a peaceful and Merry Christmas!
    With hugs from Georgia,
    Mariette

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Mariette, Thank you for the greetings, and a Merry Christmas to you and Pieter! --Jim

      Delete
  13. My own favorite is the first, egg-shapped caddy. It's a gorgeous shape, and like so many other designs that I like, has a cross-cultural feel. That first photograph is a real teaser, Jim — we can see you have so much more to share! Happy New Year to you! — Mark

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hello Mark, Yes, that egg-shaped caddy does have a special appeal, and its pewter color makes it look good anywhere you put it. However, I never know if what I like will appeal to others--I have a feeling that my next post may try my readers' patience!

      Happy New Year to you, too! --Jim

      Delete

I would love to know what you think. Please feel free to comment--no tricky security words required! Any difficulties or questions, email at: clavicytherium@yahoo.com