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.
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?).
Now the writer takes a deep breath and attempts to take a subject like the ‘representation of 75 years of national identity as depicted on stamps and bank notes’ from 50 pages of research and squash it into 65 words.
For much of their history, Canadian bank notes have represented a promise, a guarantee that they could be redeemed for “specie” (gold and silver coins) at their parent institution.
Suppose you walk into a bar frequented by currency collectors and in an attempt to join in you refer to a ‘planchette’ as a ‘rosette’ (beer mugs hit the tables and the pianist stops playing). This could be pretty humiliating and you’ll probably never be able to go to that bar again, at least not on numismatic night.
Now that you have a grasp of preservation techniques for coins, you might want to familiarize yourself with the finer points of their anatomy. It is all part of your numismatic education and besides, you need to be informed and sound informed when you are buying coins at flea markets or coin fairs.
Though naturally we are aware that the former Museum space is being gutted, the reality of seeing it empty is still pretty strange for most of us here. In the last blog of this series we showed you the empty cafeteria space that will become the new Museum, as well as some images of the old Museum as it was at the time: stuffed with odds and ends of exhibit cases, the occasional display still on the walls.
With all the blogging we’ve been doing for Voices from the Engraver, you’d think we had nothing else on our exhibition plate. We do, actually, and it’s called CENTimental Journey. This temporary exhibition, hosted at the Canadian Museum of History, walks you through more than 150 years of the Canadian 1 cent piece.
We are coming up on a year since we closed the doors on the physical museum. During that year, we’ve worked very hard to make sure everybody knows that we are still a functioning museum and one that will be opening its doors again in a few years on a beautiful new space, with an expanded mission and mandate.
For you as the steward of your collection, your aim is to preserve the items as best as you can by protecting them from further deterioration. The pros call this preservation.