Well, that depends upon which people you’re talking about. Tibetan people, yes. American people, no.
Bricks of tea date from as early as 733 AD, according to a Victoria & Albert publication, Tea: East and West. But that was in China, where bricks of tea were particularly popular in central Asia (Mongolia and Tibet) because they could be carried by porters across the mountains into that region. There, tea bricks were used as a form of currency. “Tea could be bartered against practically anything, and workmen and servants were routinely paid in it.” (p. 60-62) Perhaps this myth got started when people assumed that what they’d heard about the Far East was equally true in the West.
Americans, however, used tea in its loose-leaf form. They stored it in tea chests or canisters at home, sometimes under lock and key, because it was so costly. At stores, it was sometimes sold from canisters like the ones above. It was shipped from China in large chests that were often lead-lined and held about 360 pounds of tightly packed tea. (Rumor had it that Chinese peasants packed the tea with their bare feet, but this may well be another myth!) Half-chests and quarter-chests were also shipped.
A corollary to this myth is the one about the Boston Tea Party, a myth you will read in history texts and hear in many historic houses, that the tea thrown into Boston Harbor was brick tea. Not true, say several historians. The tea that was thrown overboard in Boston was loose-leaf, mostly Bohea tea, crated, from China. According to Benjamin Woods Labaree’s The Boston Tea Party, the men who tossed the tea took care that no one made off with any of it. “One fellow had surreptitiously filled the lining of his coat with loose tea, but he was spotted by the others, stripped of his clothing, and given a severe beating.” According to historians at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, the three ships that were raided that night contained 240 chests of Bohea, 15 of Congou, 10 of Souchong (all black teas), 60 of Singlo, and 15 of Hyson (both green teas)–all in loose-leaf form.
And by the way, it was stale! The Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum historians say: “Certainly, all the teas tossed overboard would disappoint a modern tea drinker because they were way past their prime. The Boston teas were plucked [in China] in 1770 and 1771, transported by ship to London warehouses where they sat for a couple of years, and finally placed aboard ships bound for the colonies in October 1773.”
This myth about tea bricks keeps surfacing at historic sites and in textbooks. Would someone please kill it?
Thanks to Sara Rivers Cofield for submitting this myth, which she has heard on more than one historic house tours.