November 22, 2006
"Canisters, Caddies & Chests" chronicle cultural change
A new exhibition at Colonial Williamsburg’s DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum chronicles the history of tea from 1680 to 1810 through the containers used to store the precious commodity.
“Canisters, Caddies and Chests: Fashionable Tea Containers of the 18th Century” provides museum guests the opportunity to observe the evolution of tea containers from the novelty stage through development to standardization.
The first of its kind, the comprehensive exhibit is one of three new exhibitions opening Dec. 16 as the De Witt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum re-opens following replacement of the fire safety system.
“This exhibit was great fun to put together because we used such fascinating artifacts,” said research associate John Hyman, who worked on the exhibit. “The exhibit, which emphasizes silversmiths’ work, also includes tea containers fashioned in Old Sheffield Plate, tortoise shell, ivory and inlaid wood.” By the late 18th century, tea was the most widely used beverage in the world. It was so intertwined with the social and economic attributes of the culture that tea containers became a significant silver form.
The exhibit, which includes the earliest known tea canister produced in London circa 1685, traces changes in drinking and dietary habits reflected in the increasing consumption of tea and its explosive growth as a cultural phenomenon.
Great Britain imported 150 pounds of tea from the Far East in 1650. By the end of the American Revolution, Britons were importing seven million pounds annually. After the tea tax was slashed in 1784, annual tea imports reached 15 million pounds by 1791 when the typical English working family spent 10 percent of its income on tea and sugar.
The exhibit also explores the strong relationship between tea and sugar. As tea containers evolved from canisters to caddies to chests, matching sugar containers joined the progression as sugar replaced honey as the primary sweetener.
The exhibition will be on view at least through 2007. Entrance to the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum is through the Public Hospital of 1773 on Francis St. between Nassau and South Henry Sts. Operating hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Admission is by Colonial Williamsburg admission, a separate Museums admission ticket or Annual Museums Pass.