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Object of the Month #7: Tea Under Lock and Key

Object of the Month #7
Tea Under Lock and Key
Chinese Tea Caddy (2013.01.159)
April 2015

It’s Thursday morning, and you’re going to be late if you don’t get a move on. There’s just enough time for a quick run to Alumni Hall. You find your favorite mug and grab a tea bag, which you unfortunately rip open in your haste. Crumbled tea leaves dust your pancakes. After a quick clean up you try again, carefully. Tea and breakfast inhaled in record time, you hurtle across campus to class.

Tea hasn’t always been considered so disposable, though, and at times in the past it has been an expensive luxury. In parts of the world today, including Japan, Great Britain, much of the Middle East, and China, tea is still enjoyed with some ceremony rather than tossed back on the fly.

Which brings us to this month’s object, a 19th-20th century pewter Chinese box for holding loose tea, called a tea caddy. The rectangular caddy is 23 cm wide (9”) with canted corners, and a hinged, coffered lid. The box is ornately engraved with flowers and vines, as well as urns on the front and side panels. The four corner panels are engraved in Chinese. Attached to the front of the lid is a hasp, although the corresponding staple and lock are missing. Fish-shaped knobs have been soldered onto the sides of the box. The caddy is mounted on a pierced, foliate base, with eight fluted bun feet. Inside are two separate compartments with their own lids. Inside both compartments is a small amount of dust, probably tea leaves. The caddy is intact, but has several dents and dings.

Another look provides more information about the box itself, the people that used it, and the culture in which it was created. Note that the caddy was once lockable, which suggests its contents were considered valuable enough to keep secured. The detailed decoration reinforces this message of worth. The fish knobs on the sides of the box, which obscure some of the engraving, appear to have replaced an earlier set of handles, suggesting the caddy saw regular use and was repaired as necessary.

But how can we know this box was meant for tea, and not something of more obvious value, such as jewelry? This is where a detailed inspection pays off. A closer look at the Chinese engraving and the iconography turns out to be quite telling.

The four corner panels of the caddy are engraved with traditional Chinese characters.[1] Meant to be read in pairs, the front two panels make one set of couplets, and the back two another. The front panels discuss water, dew, and snow, and how brewing tea can comfort and purify a heart. The couplet on the back panels identifies the human needs for both solitude and company, with the one part praising peaceful solitude, and the other encouraging the reader to enjoy the seasons with friends.

The iconography used on the caddy is significant as well. In Chinese the word for fish is a homophone of the word for surplus, making the fish an auspicious symbol. On the front panel (and possibly on the side panels as well, if you could see behind the fish) is a large urn with a flower visible inside. Vessels like this, often arranged with floating lotus blossoms, could be found at the entrances of palaces and wealthier homes, and would suggest prosperity.

What is perhaps the most suggestive piece of iconography can be found inside the caddy. The lids of the two internal compartments have knobs in the shape of stylized, seated lions. A lion, called suan ni,[2] is one of the nine sons of the dragon in Chinese mythology. The dragon’s sons, not necessarily dragons themselves, embody different characteristics and tend to be depicted in specific contexts. Suan ni likes sitting and observing, and is associated with steam and incense. Its presence on a tea caddy seems well within suan ni’s domain.

It seems likely that an elaborate tea caddy such as this one would have been owned by a family of some means. At the very least it could convey a desire for that kind of status even if not yet achieved. Simultaneously, the caddy also confers value upon the tea inside. Although the tea was precious, it would have been prepared and drunk regularly.

How this caddy came to be in the archives isn’t clear, although the donor was probably a 1910 Northfield Seminary student named Bessie M. Hille. In 1913 she traveled to Shanghai as a missionary, and worked there until 1943 when she was taken prisoner by the Japanese army. Hille was released to U.S. custody eight months later.[3] While it would be interesting to know for certain whether Hille was the donor, and how the tea caddy came to be on the other side of the globe, for now we’ll have to content ourselves with what we have been able to learn from the box itself.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] Many thanks to Diana (Tingxuan) Zhu ’16 for her help with this section. Any and all mistakes are my own.

[2] Yu-Gi-Oh! players might be familiar with the “Suanni, Fire of the Yang Zing” card.

[3] Engel, H. and M. Smiley, Eds. (2013). Remarkable Women in New York State History. Charleston, SC, The History Press, p. 132.