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.
Recently, from October 3 to 5th, collections staff were at the Toronto Coin Expo, held at the Toronto Reference Library on Yonge Street. The show boasts informative lectures, a large auction of coins, tokens and paper money as well as a showroom, called a bourse, where dealers greet clients and buy and sell material.
In one of my favourite cinematic moments, the 11 year-old chess prodigy, Josh Waitzkin, imagines sweeping the pieces off a chess board in order to help him think more clearly about an important game of chess. It is a championship game and he is on the brink of winning it all.
For the first time since they went into their cases in 1980, over 2000 coins, notes, beads and shells are coming back out. The Museum’s curatorial staff are busily pulling panels from cases, placing coins into specially prepared drawers and sliding notes into acid-free Mylar envelopes.
The doors were barely closed following Big Top Farewell event before Chief Curator Paul Berry and his team began emptying display cases that had been sealed shut since 1980. The biggest task involved removing more than 2500 bank notes from the room we knew as Gallery 8.
Another convention of the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association (RCNA) wrapped up in July. This year the convention was held in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was the first time in over thirty years that the RCNA Convention made a stop there.
Before the museum closed for renovations on 2 July, technicians began to remove the heavier artifacts in late May. First to go was the strong box. Built of ¼” thick welded steel plates, this trunk was used by the Bank of Upper Canada in Toronto between 1821 and 1866.
Most of us know the first part of Alexander Graham Bell’s take on opportunity: “When one door closes, another one opens…” What we often don’t recall is the second half of that quote, where he says: “…but we so often look so long and regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”
The Staff of the Currency Museum was saddened to learn of the passing of artist Alex Colville who died on 16 July at his home in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He was 92. One of Canada’s most celebrated painters, Colville is not as well-known as a sculptor but if you look carefully through your pocket change you might just find an example of his work.
The roots of the Currency Museum go back to 1959 when the then Governor of the Bank of Canada, James Coyne, proposed the idea of establishing a currency collection that would reflect the colourful monetary history of Canada. By the time the go-ahead was given in 1963 by Coyne’s successor, Louis Rasminsky, the collection’s mandate had been expanded to include world monetary history, banking and production artifacts and a numismatic library.