For those who work in museums, the artefacts that surround our daily lives gradually become friends. Some become favourites, depending on how often we see them, if we get to work on them and what their story is. One of my favourite ‘friends’ is decorated with sweet young girls’ in delicate nature scenes, faded with an antique patina but still brightly looking out at me from the end of a storage aisle. The lovely and highly romanticised scenes never fail to catch my eye. Recently, I took this item off the shelf and discovered that not just one but all five sides are illustrated with these scenes, depicting ‘The Seasons’. The box is made of heavy cardboard with a simple hinged lid and, in its golden interior, originally contained Mazawattee branded ceylon tea. The caddy (about 24 cm by 15 cm) was donated to Whangarei Museum by Mrs. R. D. U. Hansen in 1992 and is in good condition considering its material.
The doe-full young girls crowned in botanical sprays are typical of the frilly and magical Victorian style, which is the time when Mazawattee was the biggest tea brand in the world. Mazawatte was a range of tea released by John Densham & Sons in 1886. John Boon Densham started as a chemist but moved to Croydon, a tea trading centre near London, and entered the tea trade with a Mr C. Lees as Lees & Densham. Soon afterwards Mr Lees divested and Densham’s company became John Densham & Sons.
During the 1800s tea was most commonly sold loose from shops. Although introduced in the 1840s, tea canisters and caddies quickly rose in popularity from the 1880s due their transportability together with growing awareness of the improved cleanliness of individual packaging. Boxes and tins of Mazawattee blended ceylon teas were released at just the right time. Due to the excellent marketing campaigns, smart bulk purchasing methods and Victorian’s love of drinking tea Mazawattee quickly became a popular brand. Its exotic sounding name contributed to its memorability and success and was made of a mash up of the Hindi word Maza for ‘pleasure’ and Sinhalese (Sri Lanka) word Wattee for ‘garden’.
By 1892 over 14 million packets of tea were being sold annually. Soon after Mazawattee was the largest tea brand in the world and became the largest wholesaler too. No wonder it made its way to New Zealand. Many shops throughout Northland’s towns would have stocked Mazawattee tea. It was advertised as “the most delicious tea in the market” at Marshall & Sons General Store, Bank Street, Whangarei. After exponential growth in the 1890s the company experienced a gradual decline into the new century. Sadly the company suffered a massive loss with the destruction of two of their main factories during WWII. The cellars of their Tower Hill factory remain and are now used as a shopping and refreshment venue. Following this the tea was produced by Brooke Bond, the company who produce PG Tips and became the world’s largest tea company in 1957. By 1965 Mazawattee was no longer produced and Densham & Sons liquidated two years later.
Mazawattee brand chocolate and tea tins remain very collectable today. They range from beautiful cardboard boxes like the one in our collection to novelty eight sided tins. Fortunately for us Mazawattee tea is now being revived, so hopefully future generations can enjoy the magic of drinking this quality tea with such an interesting heritage. I just hope they also revive the stunning packaging that won the original company its international fame.
Exhibitions Curator, Whangarei Museum
13 May 2020