Tea caddies: procrasti-research

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My little collection of tea caddies

Last weekend, when I should’ve been working on finalising my book manuscript post-editing and writing a lecture presentation, I found myself researching tea caddies. Not any ol’tea caddies, oh no. That iconic black, red and gold design of cranes, Chinese ladies holding fans, and a distinguished gentleman sitting beneath a bough of cherry blossom and attended to by a boy on bended knee. I remember it clearly from my childhood – the tea merchants in Woodbridge and, if I remember correctly, the one in Felixstowe too, had shelves of these tins behind their counters. I strongly suspect my Grandma had one too – it’s just so familiar. Recently I’ve noticed an apparent resurgence in the pattern. It’s started to appear in shops and tea rooms all over the place…and I wondered why? Who produces it? Where is it from? How old is the design? Trying to find out the answers to these questions seemed considerably more appealing than the work I really had to to.

My first discovery, thanks to Google, was that the design has the rather uncomfortable moniker of ‘Black Jap’ sometimes ‘blackjap’. I suspect this references Japan black (i.e. lacquer).  The design dates back at least to the 1950s. Black Jap tea caddies produced by Daher can still be picked up on eBay (at a premium).

Daher began manufacturing tinware in Britain in 1952 until 1980, when the company changed its name to the Tin Box Company, went wholesale only and moved production to China.* On learning this I was immediately reminded of the willow pattern – designed (and entirely imagined) in England, sent to China for production and imported back into Europe as chinoiserie.#

But, it turns out this isn’t the full story, because then I came across the story of P. Wilkinson Containers Ltd., established in London in 1930 and distributor for The Metal Box Company of Mansfield.~ It appears that P. Willkinson’s recently discovered a stash of ‘Black Jap’ tea caddies made by the Metal Box Company in the 1980s in one of their warehouses. Described as ‘extremely rare originals’, they have been released to retailers for onward sale.^ Presumably these have been very popular and replicas are being produced (in China, by the Tin Box Company, who as Daher, appear to have been the original manufacturer?) But were they? And where did the design originate? With Daher or the Metal Box Company? That mystery remains. Next step: company archives.

* See ‘Daher Designed Tins‘ (12/04/2014) and ‘Tin Box Company’ (12/04/2014).
# See Stacey Pierson, 2007, Collectors, Collections and Museums, 44–5.
~ See ‘P. Wilkinson Containers Company History‘ (12/04/2014).
^ See ‘Tea Caddies‘ (12/04/2014) and ‘Black Jap Tea Caddie‘ (12/04/2014).

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Hi Amy, Ive been spending the day procrati-googling ‘blackjap’ tea tins so I am delighted to find that I am not alone. I had gotten as far as the Metal Box Company and then I found your post. Im trying to find out something about the design. Is it based on some story or other? Maybe not, but the design has really endured. Now that I have my eye in I am noticing that they really are everywhere. Our kitchen, my regular coffeeshop etc etc. Best, Brian

  2. Thanks for your comment Brian. I had a look at my ‘blackjap’ tin again this morning – I suspect the design isn’t based on a particular story and those ladies in their silk pyjamas and permanent waves look very 1930s to me. Perhaps it harks back to an image of pre-war Shanghai?

  3. Thank you for sharing your research. I have two of these caddies, one brand new and the other at least 50 years old. They are virtually identical, although the design on the original seems to me to have been printed more carefully than that on the new one. I didn’t know they were called ‘blackjap’ and am pleased to learn the history you’ve found out.

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