A tea caddy collection with a Broadway connection on display in Delaware

Mark Bramble is a Broadway author and producer best known for the musicals “42nd Street” and “Barnum.” His mother’s hobby of collecting tea caddies has become his hobby and a part of the collection is now on display in historic Odessa, Delaware.

Marnie Bramble discovered tea caddies almost by accident.

“She didn’t know what the little jar was. She soon learned that it was an 18th-century Chinese export tea caddy,” said her son.

After that, she went on to learn as much about tea caddies as she could and soon began collecting them. Bramble  has taken up his mother’s mantle, and he’s written a book on the subject, “A Tea Caddy Collection.”

A tea caddy is simply a container made from various materials — wood or ceramics — that was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to hold loose-leaf tea.

These days, you may just grab a box of tea bags at the store and keep it in a cabinet. But in times past, tea was such a rarity that Bramble said it was even more precious than gold in the 18th century.

“Literally, it was a very precious commodity,” he said.

Tea was such a luxury that, if you had it in your house, you were probably wealthy. It also meant keeping a close eye on that precious commodity. Many of the tea caddies are protected by lock and key, not just for decoration, but also to inhibit “pilfering servants, among others,” Bramble said.

His mother began her collection more than 50 years ago. Luckily for her, Bramble traveled the world and was always looking for new specimens.

“When I began traveling with my shows, my mother enlisted me to help in her search for tea caddies,” he said, adding that he became hooked on his mother’s hobby.

“It’s absolutely addictive. It opened up a world of art that I knew nothing about.”

And these little containers are works of art themselves. Meant to impress guests, the containers are embellished with different types of artwork generally showcasing their country of origin.

“The floral decoration and insects and objects of nature are brilliantly rendered and really elevate these pieces to works of art,” Bramble said.

Some of his favorite pieces — a tough decision considering there are more than 400 pieces in the collection — are the caddies made of wood that depict fruit. These particular caddies are a mystery because “there is no known record of them having been manufactured or sold,” he said.

These wooden caddies depict a peach, a pear or a pineapple. Many had a lock built into them, and they were lined in lead to keep moisture out.

“They are most charming, and to hold them is absolutely a wonderful experience,” he said.

Like many, I had a lot to learn about tea caddies. I knew, of course, that you could buy boxes and other containers to hold tea, but not of their rich history. Bramble, a history buff, continues adding to his collection just for “the artistic aspect of it.”

It’s an intimate glimpse into how people lived in the 18th and 19th centuries. “I think it’s a glimpse into a world that is so completely foreign to our own … To hold an object that was a practical household item 300 and some years ago is quite a thrilling experience.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.