Coin collectors are often drawn to the more bizarre forms of money that have been used throughout the world. Some of the strange items used in barter or trade included huge stone wheels on the island of Yap in the Pacific, feathers, shells and beads of all sorts. But one of the most unusual forms of money has to be the bricks of tea once used as money and an international item of trade by Chinese merchants.
Tea has been the beverage of choice in China for hundreds of years. There is evidence that tea drinking was popular in the eighth century, and that its use spread to Russia and Western Asia during Mongol times. By the 16th century the use of tea was well established throughout Europe, and in time English colonists brought the custom to America along with the first settlers. Today tea is used by more people, and in greater quantity, than any beverage but water.
The use of tea as a commercial trade item probably began with the heavy demand for fine Chinese tea from the Russian nobility. It was considered very valuable and only the rich could afford it. At first, dried leaves were transported from China to Russia by caravans of camels over the treacherous silk route. In time it was discovered that a more convenient commodity could be fashioned by processing the tea and forming it into solid bricks about the size of a large book. Eventually tea bricks became an accepted medium of exchange that could pass the same as silver and other trade items both in domestic and foreign trade.
There are no records of exactly when the Chinese pressed tea bricks began being shipped outside the country. Some believe that it may date back to very early times. The first written account of the use of brick tea as both a drink and a medium of exchange was described by Abbi Huc in the account of his travels in Tartary, Tibet and China during 1844-1846. Later reports confirm its continued use as money in remote parts of Central Asia until as recently as 1935. The average brick was valued at one rupee, and used for paying wages, buying provisions, and in ordinary trading.
In Tibet, swords, horses and other property were sometimes priced in a given number of tea bricks or packets (of 4 bricks). In Mongolia cattle and wood were likewise priced in terms of bricks. For smaller purchases, pieces were broken from the bricks and passed by weight. The natives of Siberia preferred brick tea money to metallic coins because of its beneficial use as a medicine for coughs, colds and lung diseases, as well as a refreshing beverage; other forms of money being much more prone to fluctuation in value and loss to bandits.
Most of the brick tea was made in China and carried by camel and yak caravans to the distant lands of Tibet, Mongolia and Siberia. Although this tea was used as a form of money during transit, when it reached Russia it was used for a beverage by the Russian army, tourists, hunters and sportsmen because of its convenient form. British traveler Thomas Atkinson reported in 1860 that a chief of the Khirgix tribe served him a bowl of brick tea with clotted cream, salt and millet meal added, boiled for a half hour and served hot. “I cannot say that the beverage is either bad or particularly clean,” Atkinson noted, “still hunger has often caused me to make a very good meal of it, but I think of it as rather tea soup than tea.” The Tibetans, it is said, enjoyed their brick tea by boiling it with yak butter in a large cauldron.
Collectors of odd and unusual forms of money treasure the old bricks that were made for use in trade and drinking. Very few have survived their original purpose, and intact bricks that still have clear images and inscriptions are valued highly. The pieces made for trade in Russia, showing both Russian and Chinese inscriptions seem to be the rarest, and sell in the $1,000.00 range. Those made and used during World War II are considered the most common of the original pieces but still bring prices in the hundreds of dollars. The modern bricks that were sold in U.S. grocery stores for actual use as tea have no collector value, but they are a colorful reminder of one of the most unusual forms of money ever used anywhere in the world.