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

DSCN1869

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. Half-chests and quarter-chests were also shipped.

Boston_Tea_Party_wA 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. Bruce Richardson, Tea Master for the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, writes, “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).”

And by the way, it was stale! The Boston Tea Party Ships & 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, kept alive by sutlers at military re-enactments who want to continue selling the product to the re-enactors. 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.

COMMENTS from original post:
Five bits of tea trivia that are WRONG! | Tea With Gary
teawithgary.com/2015/03/27/tea-trivia-that-is-wro…
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[…] 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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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.82.204 In reply to Cindy Hastreiter Robinson.
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.

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Cindy Hastreiter Robinson
facebook.com/cindy.h.robinson.77
applejunction513@aol.com
184.74.113.20
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!

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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.82.204 In reply to Daisiemae.
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.

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Daisiemae
floriangel2@gmail.com
98.221.135.19 In reply to Mary Miley.
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.

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Daisiemae
floriangel2@gmail.com
98.221.135.19 In reply to Bruce Richardson.
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?

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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.82.204 In reply to Carol.
Do you have pictures of any of those? It would be interesting.

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Carol
c.a.pape@hotmail.com
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“(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.

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Mary Miley
mmtheobald@comcast.net
68.57.82.204 In reply to Bruce Richardson.
Thank you, Bruce. I look forward to your new edition of The Social History of Tea.

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Bruce Richardson
theteamaestro.blogspot.com
bruce@elmwoodinn.com
108.245.152.227
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!

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

  1. katknit says:

    Reblogged this on You're History! and commented:
    From history myths.wordpress.com

  2. Emily Correll says:

    I went to a seminar on tea years ago and was told that tea bricks were mainly for the overland trade to Russia, so that is what I told the children at our historic site where we had a lovely tea brick and a tea chest of loose leaves. However, when a student asked how you could make tea with a tea brick and I replied that I had no clue, an Asian mother with the group replied that she shaved it the way you would shave baking chocolate.

  3. QNPoohBear says:

    I wish I could kill the myth but I’m not allowed to. At the museum where I work, I present an 18th/early 19th century home and we have a tea brick on display on the table. It’s one of the things we present to school children so when asked if that’s what was thrown in the harbor during the Boston Tea Party, I kind of have to say yes. I have no idea who bought the tea brick or why it’s still on display when it’s not accurate but it’s not my place to debunk history myths. We also have an inaccurate outfit on display as well that drives me completely crazy but it’s not something we present regularly.

    • Mary Miley says:

      I understand your predicament. It’s delicate. Might you send a link to this site (about tea bricks) to Whoever In Charge and let that speak for itself?

  4. James Meek says:

    I’ve rcently seen brick tea (actually more like cards maybe 4x6x 3/8) in three different museums dealing with 1840-1880 western life. Mabye myths, maybe different culture than tea party era.

    They were Columbia California, near Yosemite, a gold rush town, in the general store.

    And at the End of The Oregon Trail Museum in Oregon City in a display of objects of every day life from the pioneers that first settled Orgon. This one came complete with a somewhat suspect grater for shreding the solid tea.

    And at the High Desert Museum in Bend Oregon (I think–maybe my memory is tricking me). It had a reconstruction of a mining town and the guide told me the entire contents of the Chinese store on display (including the tea) came from the upstairs storeroom of a Chinese store then being torn down in Portland.

    Maybe different tea forms for different places and times?

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