Myth # 87: People bought their tea in bricks, not loose leaves.

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.

21 Responses to Myth # 87: People bought their tea in bricks, not loose leaves.

  1. Lockhart Dennis says:

    Tea was shipped from China in bricks and sold by sutlers to the military during and after the Civil War. It is still available today. It was purportedly easier to transport in larger quantities if pressed into blocks.

    • marymiley says:

      So you’re saying tea bricks were used during the Civil War? You could be right, but I’ve not seen anything that supports it. What is your documentation?

      • Jamie says:

        On the subject of documentation, I was wondering what the source was for the third paragraph? Still the V&A book? Are there any other sources? I find this fascinating but my docents are up in arms and I’d like to give them a few more things to read on the topic . . . .

      • marymiley says:

        Gee, I wrote this months ago and don’t remember all my sources, but it’s probably the two I cited (V&A book and museum website). I don’t cite sources when information is widely acknowledged, as most of this is. I didn’t see anything in the third paragraph that looked controversial . . . can you point to a particular statement? So sorry to have fostered rebellion in the ranks!

        Mary Miley Theobald Writer and Historian

  2. Veritas says:

    Thanks for debunking this one. However, I would caution against citing the Boston tea party ships museum as a source. While there’s nothing wrong with the numbers here (as far as I know) the materials they have put out on the web are rife with errors and tall tales.

    • marymiley says:

      Really? How so?

      • Veritas says:

        Well, where to begin?

        There’s a lot of small misstatements about things unrelated to the tea party:

        “During the American Revolution it is estimated one-third of the population of the Thirteen Colonies were Tories, one-third were Patriots, and one-third remained neutral.”
        Myth. Estimated by whom? John Adams? He is the usual source for this assertion, but in the source every cites, he was talking about US support for the French revolution.

        “A popular misconception is the belief the Tea Party Ships were British.. In fact, the vessels were built in America and owned by Americans.”
        If you told the owners of those ships that they weren’t British I doubt they would have taken it well. This may seem like splitting hairs, but I think it’s very important to understand.

        “David Kinnison was the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party”
        False, Kinnison is a proven fraud but they have no compuction about presenting everything he said as

        ” “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!”. With those words […] the meeting came to a close, and it was the signal for the Sons of Liberty to take action and carry out their plan. ”
        Myth. Even Wikipedia explains that this version of the story is a myth and didn’t appear in print till a century later. In fact, the meeting continued for quite some time after that with Dr, Thomas Young telling everyone tea was bad for your health.

        I could go on about the things that aren’t said as well. For example, I cannot find anywhere where they address the important fact that no contemporary called the event a “Tea Party”

  3. Margaret says:

    Did those rascally Brits usually dump their stale tea on the American colonies? Would the tea have been purchased by shopkeepers and citizens or would it have been sampled and rejected first? What would have been the result if people realized they had been taken advantage of? I’ve heard that the Brits often got rid of out-of-fasion furniture and decorative items by pawning them off on the colonies. Any interesting stories about this?

  4. Frank Williams says:

    I am not convinced. If the Chinese already had the technology to compress tea into bricks for the mountain journey, they most likely would have done the same for the much more difficult sea voyage.

    • marymiley says:

      It’s fine to be unconvinced, but why? So do you have any evidence that the East India Company sold tea to the colonies in bricks?

  5. Carol Potter says:

    I was a believer that the tea came in bricks but then while researching dinnerware of the 17th-19th Century I discovered the tea sets came with caddies. Obviously they were designed for loose tea. Additional I found the diary of a sailor on the Neptune who described the loose tea being packed into crates. So now I have two primary sources supporting loose tea. An article by Hansen indicates that tea bricks may have come into the pacific northwest from Russia. History can be so confusing…..

  6. I am the Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum and am responsible for the tea blogs and videos posted on their site. I am also their consultant for historical tea information from that era.

    Tea bricks were not thrown overboard in Boston harbor. Eye witness accounts talk about the tea being piled like haystacks alongside the three ships, and some men had to rake it into the water (the tide was low that night).

    Yes, tea bricks were available in China at the time but they were not imported by the East India Company.

    Veritas is correct that the event was not called a “tea party” until the next century. I’m not responsible for content other then tea information, but that would be a good bit of news to share in future blogs.

    Sorry, Frank, the whole Chinese love affair with brick tea came to an end centuries before the Boston event. It’s really a matter of taste – brick tea is only good when scraped into fresh yak milk, mixed with salt and barley, and then churned into a soupy tea mixture with the consistency of potato soup.

    As far as tea bricks in the Civil War – no. If a Civil War soldier had tea in his kit, it was probably Chinese gunpowder green tea.(I also designed the tea sold in the retail shops the National Parks at Gettysburg and Manassas.)

    I had this tea brick conversation recently with Jane Pettigrew in London. We are writing the new edition of the National Trust publication The Social History of Tea. We both agree that this myth has hit a brick wall.

    Go forth and make good tea!

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thank you, Bruce. I look forward to your new edition of The Social History of Tea.

    • Daisiemae says:

      Can you point to any books that could be used to research American tea customs and culture? I am a living historian, and I am developing a program about tea that can be performed from either colonial or civil war perspective (with appropriate period attire, of course!) I want to be certain I am including accurate information in my program.

      I have Jane Pettigrew’s A Social History of Tea which is fabulous, but that centers on British tea customs. Are there any sources to study American customs?

      • Mary Miley says:

        Hmmmm. Well first, Pettigrew’s book, or any other about British tea customs, would apply to colonial America, which was British. As for tea drinking customs during the mid-19th century, you have me there. What I would do in your position is go to the nearest university library and ask for help from the reference librarian. Books aren’t your only resource; there may be articles in historical journals as well.

  7. Carol says:

    “(Rumor had it that Chinese peasants packed the tea with their bare feet, but this may well be another myth!)”

    I actually found paintings from the 1700’s and photos from late 1800’s/early 1900’s that show the workers stomping the loose tea into the lead lined tea chest. Very interesting.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Do you have pictures of any of those? It would be interesting.

      • Daisiemae says:

        Ther is a picture of 18th century wallpaper in Jane Pettigrew’s book that shows them packing the tea with their feet. Of course, that only proves that this was an accepted idea in the 18th century, not that it actually happened centuries before.

  8. Thank you for clearing up this myth. I had a Civil War reenactor come in to my tea shop looking for a tea brick, so when he comes in again I can steer him in the right direction. I did order a tea brick anyways, to use during my tea presentations along with the information in this post.
    Thanks again everyone!

    • Mary Miley says:

      Thanks for the comment, Cindy. I’ve heard from many re-enactors who say that the sutlers are the ones driving this myth, so they can sell these tea bricks. THey’ve been told that tea bricks are not authentic, but they push them on re-enactors anyway. Maybe you can use yours to explain that it was a Tibetan and Chinese custom not found in America.

  9. […] No it isn’t. As this excellent debunking points out, historians at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum say that the three ships that […]

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