The Evolution of the Utensil Caddy
Tabletop caddies have come in all shapes and sizes over the years. They’ve been around in one iteration or another for literally centuries, holding everything from tea to spices to utensils. The history of tabletop caddies and their evolution from primitive, homemade centerpieces to fully-operational digital condiment receptacles is an interesting one. Let’s take a look.
Tea Caddies Come into Fashion
From the 1600s to about the 1800s, the utensil caddy had one purpose: tea. As tea and tea service became a bigger part of European life, the wealthy started importing porcelain tea holders and service wear from China where tea had been enjoyed for millennia.
During the late 1700s, tea caddies started being made from wood, metals, and other decorative finishes and mounted on stands of their own. What once simply held tea leaves was now a complete service station designed to hold the tea itself, serve wear, utensils, and more. Not only that, but tea caddies became a decorative element for the home. These early caddies fell out of fashion as tea became cheaper and less ceremonial.
The Condiment Container Takes Center Stage
Asia, of course, has been using condiment containers for thousands of years. In certain Asian cultures – Korean and Indian, for example – each diner is encouraged to build their own meal through the use of various tabletop condiments and spices. In many cases these condiment jars were communal in nature with everyone scooping out their preferred amount by hand!
As the European fascination with all things “Orient” rose in the 1600s and 1700s, so did their interest in traditional Asian dining habits.
The condiment caddy industry first took root in Europe and in the 1800s where meals were often elaborate and served with dozens of condiments. Tabletop caddies were commonly used to hold spices, dressings, sauces, and even chopped garnishes like herbs and onions – some required spoons and some allowed diners to reach in with their hands.
Early condiment containers were made of metal or wood, particularly as manufacturing began to become more and more streamlined. Although plenty of households and establishments purchased intricately-decorated caddies, many more bought handmade or assembly line bowls and serving containers to get the job done.
The New York Historical Society Museum actually has a miniature German condiment caddy from the 1920s in their backlog of relics!
The Utensil Caddy Has its Heyday
The 1940s and 50s were when table caddies really hit their stride. Cocktails were huge, particularly in the U.S. which meant manufacturers were rushing to create a utensil caddy for every home. Some were designed to hold bar snacks, other the barware itself, and some were meant for restaurants.
Casual restaurant dining was just starting to take off during this period and chains like McDonald’s became the new norm for families. Similarly, paid advertising was also skyrocketing during this same period and smart brands like Coca Cola started giving free branded utensil caddies to restaurants – a smart move that reminded customers to buy right at the table. In fact, one of the most recognizable aspects of the 1950s “Diner” concept is the idea of a linoleum table with a silver-plated condiment caddy situated squarely in the middle.
At home, the “Lazy Susan” was the newest fad and everyone’s favorite way to bring the idea of the condiment caddy to the home dining table.
Caddies were being used more and more to hold utensils, and not just sauces and such. The utensil caddy really hit its stride around this period in bars, being used to hold everything from bar napkins to straws to bottles of liquor. In this way the original utensil caddy was far more functional than it was eye-catching, but that all changed soon.
The Condiment Caddy of Today
In the last few decades, condiment caddies have changed tremendously. During the fine-dining craze of the 80s they went out of fashion – real restaurants served their condiments in glass jars and wrapped utensils in cloth napkins! But as casual dining experienced a resurgence in the last dozen or so years, so too have condiment containers.
Plenty of home entertainers use the utensil caddy to lend additional décor to barbecues and showers (just ask Etsy.) The rise of artisanal, farm-style dining in urban areas across the country has made the idea of shared condiments and seasonings new again. You’ll easily find hand-carved, open-topped wooden vessels of salt and various jars of vinegars on tables from San Francisco to Miami.
The most interesting development in the utensil caddy industry, though, is undoubtedly the digital bartop and tabletop caddy. Designed to do more than just hold napkins and ketchup, these tableside advertising mediums provide diners with everything from drink specials to engaging “infotainment” to a place to charge their phones. Digital bar caddies like those from Media Caddy are quickly becoming the norm at sports bars and casual restaurant chains across the country as brands look for cheaper, easier ways to manage their day-to-day advertising messages.
Condiment caddies have come a long way. You can easily find decades-old throwback models on Ebay or even pay a woodworker to create customized caddies for your wedding day on Etsy. Most fast-casual restaurants employ condiment containers of some kind and bars, of course, still have plenty of use for the traditional black plastic bar caddies that hold limes, napkins, and cherries.
Tabletop caddies are changing quickly to keep up with the restaurant industry’s foray into digital – from menu boards to at-table ordering tablets – and it’ll be interesting to see how they adapt over the next few years. Little by little, digital tabletop caddies are becoming the new norm in sports bars, restaurants, and taverns across the country.