When Tea Wasn’t for Everyone

Tea brick with Russian characters, used as currency, found in Mongolia, 1910
Photo Credit: The British Museum

Our Virtual Tea Party Activity Packet, includes Tea Knowledge sections, about the history and customs surrounding afternoon tea and tea drinking. It got us thinking about one interesting part of tea history: tea wasn’t always for the common man. In fact, tea was so highly valued in Central Asian countries that compressed tea molded into tea bricks was used as currency in that part of the world, for centuries, all the way into the 20th century.

Tea, That Luxury Beverage

Walk into your average grocery store today, with its shelves of tea, and it’s hard to believe these tiny leaves were once a luxury good, affordable only to the aristocracy. Read our post about “smouch” for more details about how the lower classes throughout the 1700s bought tea mixed with all kinds of crazy fillers because that was what they could afford. They settled for a knockoff so they could imitate the tea-drinking social customs of the upper classes.

Photo Credit: Ed W.

Astronomical Tea Budgets

In January of 1720, the British East India Company’s Bohea tea arriving in the colonies cost 24 shillings per pound of tea. In the coming decades the price of tea varied greatly between the ‘early price of 24 shillings per pound of tea to a low of 1 shilling 9 pence per pound of tea.’…Between 1740 and 1822, 9% of one’s average earnings was spent on tea, most notably the popular Bohea tea.”

– “Colonial Tea Prices” Oliver Pluff & Co.

Can you imagine allocating 9% of your income to tea purchases? With the average American making about $48,000 annually, that would mean a $4,320 tea budget! For that kind of money, today, you could book yourself and a friend on a fabulous tea tour to Savannah (#DestinationTeaBucketList).

“A Tea Party” by Joseph van Aken, 1719-1721
Photo credit: Manchester Art Gallery

Why Was Tea So Expensive in America?

There were several economic and political reasons tea was costly when first introduced to America.

  1. Tea was imported from China and taxed heavily by Great Britain until 1784 when the Commutation Act dramatically reduced the tea tax from 119% to 12.5%.
  2. The British government awarded its East India Company a monopoly on the importation and sale of tea to the colonies, and passed a series of acts designed to impose special taxes on goods sold in America, including tea.
  3. Americans began drinking tea in the 17th century, and the British didn’t control market prices until the 19th century, when they smuggled trade tea production secrets out of China, established their own tea estates in colonized India and started the Opium Wars, in part to weaken China’s dominance of the tea industry.
Artwork by the notable British cartographer, graphic designer and artist
Leslie MacDonald “Max” Gill (1884-1947)
Photo Credit: 1st Dibs

Tea Drinking Today

We are spoiled for choice, and we’re not talking about some questionable smouch either. High quality teas can be shipped direct from around the world at affordable costs, and premium loose leaf teas can now be found at your local stores. File this tea knowledge under “grateful to be drinking tea in 2021.”

Tea Voyageuse, discovering the world of afternoon tea, based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We love comments! Destination Tea's comment policy shares a guiding principle with afternoon tea etiquette: please be gracious. We welcome honest comments that are not rude or scathing.