My family communicates best through hot beverages. In the throes of my anguished adolescence, my father developed a system for dealing with me that was similar to the way most people approach wild animals: Extend a food tribute and run away. In my father’s case, the proffered peace offering was a cup of hot tea served the British way, with a dash of skim milk and added sugar.
If my American father took away one thing from his relationship with my Canadian mother, it was a lifelong devotion to Red Rose Tea. Established by Theodore Harding Estabrooks during the 1890s, the drink became popular in Canada’s Atlantic provinces and in a few American cities close to the border. Red Rose devotees can and will distinguish between the original orange pekoe blend, which is only sold up North, and the black pekoe blend, which has been available in the States since the 1920s.
Red Rose makes a solid cup of tea, but what separates it from the Liptons and Tetleys of the world are the Wade Figurines (formerly known as Wade Whimsies) that come free in every 100-count carton of Red Rose Original Blend.
Clocking in at just under two inches tall, these cheerfully colored, glazed, ceramic shapes seemed impossibly luxe and as a kid, I found them enormously satisfying. As an adult, I continue to compulsively hoard them and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.
Red Rose didn’t start including Wade Figurines in boxes of tea until 1967. It’s likely the company wouldn’t have thought to do so if it hadn’t been for an issue with electrical insulators. Around this time, George Wade & Son Ltd. was a British pottery company primarily responsible for producing ceramic goods. After the British government decreased its orders for porcelain electrical insulators, the company needed an additional source of revenue. Red Rose settled on manufacturing ceramic figurines for companies to use as promotional items.
Since Red Rose began distributing Wade miniatures in the U.S. in 1983, it has given away over 300 million figurines. I estimate that at one point, I owned at least 100 of them.
I grew up during the ’90s when collecting was not only normalized, but encouraged as a potentially lucrative financial investment. (Pogs, anyone?) I remember standing over my paltry Beanie Baby horde at the tender age of 10 and informing a friend that this motherlode was going to pay for my college education.
As I got older and it became apparent that Speedy the turtle wasn’t going to have the long-reaching financial influence I had fantasized about, my desire to hold onto unnecessary shit waned. I went through a period of militant minimalism during my teenage years, embracing the Marie Kondo method of throwing-shit-out years before “de-cluttering with intention” became mainstream. The one thing that survived my many hormone-fueled purges was my collection of Wade Figurines. Then, one day, I got rid of those too.
It’s hard to explain the allure of these miniature ceramic figures to the uninitiated. They’re the ultimate tchotchkes: decorative, eccentric, and aggressively devoid of function. It takes the company between nine and 12 months to develop the figurines, during which time it surveys customers to find out which themes will resonate. Red Rose likes to mix up its collections every three years, alternating between animal themes like Circus and Pet Shop, and location-based themes like Nautical Wonderland or American Heritage (there’s also a Noah’s Ark series, the perfect animal- and nautical-themed hybrid.)
Unlike most collectors, my interest in accruing these tiny ceramics has been entirely passive. I’ve never purchased a figure on eBay or picked one up at an antique shop. I obtain them simply by drinking boxes upon boxes of tea. I have put zero effort into curating my collection and it shows: I have four White Houses from the American Heritage series, but my Endangered Species set is wildly underrepresented.
While many people take pride in artistically displaying their Wade collections, my process is slightly less refined. When I started collecting again in Chicago, I dumped all the figurines into a glass bowl alongside a bunch of wine corks I couldn’t bear to throw out—clearly, all of my collections revolve around drinking. After a few stressful years, the wine cork collection surpassed the figurine collection and I had to separate the two. Now, my Wade figurines enjoy their own bowl, which sits in a place of the highest possible prominence, on the windowsill in my bathroom, next to the toilet.
Even though I don’t do anything with the figurines, my years of hoarding them have manifested into a tremendous relationship with Red Rose Tea. My brand loyalty borders on psychotic. When I moved to Chicago after college, I was horrified to learn the brand wasn’t available in stores in the Midwest. I resigned myself to paying Amazon almost 50 percent more than market price to have the tea delivered.
When I moved to Los Angeles for a few months and was exclusively crashing on friends’ couches, the only food I brought with me was 100 Red Rose tea bags, unceremoniously stuffed into a gallon-sized Ziploc bag.
Earlier this month, Red Rose announced that starting this summer, the company will no longer include figurines in every 100-count box of Red Rose original. The change, it says, is a long time coming and will help reduce waste. To satisfy its collector base, Red Rose will include figurines in boxes of the original blend or decaffeinated blend sold on their website. The company says this updated method of distribution will be an upgrade for collectors, who will now be able to pre-select figurines and receive bonus figurines for placing large orders.
It only took a brief scan of the company’s Facebook page or Twittter feed to see that customers aren’t exactly handling the news gracefully.
As a self-identified reactive collector, I was surprised to realize how much this announcement bummed me out. I no longer feel giddy when I reach inside a cereal box and find a toy, but hand me an unopened box of Red Rose Tea and I’m immediately transported back to my childhood. That moment of not knowing if you’re about to open the box and find the elusive Pet Shop rabbit or get screwed again with another goddamn seahorse is one that for me, cannot be replicated.
My current Wade Figurine collection is much smaller than it would be if I hadn’t trashed all of my childhood acquisitions. Even so, I cherish it. My collection is completely homegrown, each piece a trophy won from successfully drinking my way through a box of 100 tea bags. It’s a set born of hard work, nostalgia, and a moderate addiction to caffeine. I have absolutely no reason to hang on to all this crap, but I do it anyway, fully expecting that one day, my collection will overwhelm me and I will die crushed beneath a pile of teeny, tiny cerulean mermaids.
But until that day comes, I think I’ll keep collecting—if only to have a tangible reminder of how much fucking tea I’ve consumed.