Tea brick currency
Tee, thé, cha, tsài, tè, teo, chai, teh, chay—these are all words for the beverage made from leaves of the evergreen shrub Camelia sinensis. Wars have been fought to control its trade and gifts of it have been made to ensure peace. It has even been used as currency. In central and northern Asia, bricks of tea were a unit of value and medium of exchange well into the 20th century.
China had a monopoly on the tea trade right up until the 19th century and, as the taste for tea spread, it became an increasingly valuable commodity. It was exchanged for horses in Mongolia and Tibet. Russian caravans travelled for months across Siberia to trade furs for it.
Tea in the form of bricks was durable, easy to pack and, under the right conditions, could be preserved indefinitely. At factories in China’s Sichuan Province, freshly picked leaves were steamed, pounded into powder and then packed into moulds. The bricks were then dried or baked in the sun to harden.
The value of a brick depended on both the quality of the tea and the distance it had travelled from China. A French missionary travelling in Tibet in the 19th century wrote, “men bargain by stipulating so many bricks or packets (4 bricks) of tea.” Workmen and servants were paid in bricks of tea and a horse cost 20 packets. At the beginning of the 20th century, Western adventurers in remote parts of Mongolia and Tibet found that they couldn’t use gold or silver to buy supplies, but could only use tea.
The tea brick shown here was produced in the People’s Republic of China sometime in the mid-20th century. It is in the Bank of Canada Museum’s National Currency Collection and can be seen in Zone 4 of our main gallery along with many curious and fascinating objects that have been used as money.
Our little team from the Museum stood in the education space of the Sherbrooke Nature and Science Museum on a chill November morning while the exhibition technicians assembled our finished exhibition. Yes, finished.
You could work in the exhibition-fabrication business all your life and still run into things you wouldn’t expect: a never-ending series of “uh-ohs.” It’s one of the things that makes the job so interesting and demands a high level of creative problem-solving skills…
What do you think of when you think of money? Is it coins? Is it bank notes? Three-hundred years ago people weren’t sure bank notes were really money; it took a long time for them to get used to the idea.
The show… is an ideal opportunity for the Bank of Canada Museum to share a part of the National Currency Collection with Canadians. This year, we decided to tell the story of Canada’s phantom banks and the financial crisis of 1837.
On this trip, we were all excited to see the 8-foot-tall wooden panels with the full copy printed directly onto them. Using a new process, staff of the exhibition fabrication department at the Sherbrooke Nature and Science Museum have produced some very impressive results.
An exhibition fabrication company was finally selected by the Museum to produce the upcoming “Voices from the Engraver” travelling exhibition. It’s all very exciting.
The recent additions to the National Currency Collection described below are from very different parts of the world and are between 1500 and 2500 years old.
The commemorative 1951 5 cent piece was issued to mark the 200th anniversary of the naming of nickel and its isolation as an element. Recently, I had the great pleasure to participate in the Big Nickel anniversary festivities and give a talk about the design competition for the 1951 5 cent coin.
This is not the time for ‘nay sayers’. Basically, we planned a luxury car knowing that when all was said and done, it was going to be a very nice family sedan (maybe with the big engine?).