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Greenbacks, Sawbucks, or Tea Bricks – it All Spends the Same!

In our busy world we have wire transfers, credit cards and electronic funds transfers to purchase goods or move funds. We still use old fashioned dollars too, called everything from “clams” to ‘bacon” to “cabbage”- like a currency buffet! So it’s slightly ironic that there was a time when tea was used as actual currency.

Tea was not just traded as a commodity; blocks of whole or finely ground tea leaves, packed in to molds and pressed into block form were used to purchase goods. For 20 bricks you could purchase a horse, and for only 12 bricks – a sheep! Due to the value of tea in Asia, tea bricks were used like gold coins in China, Tibet, Mongolia, and Central Asia.


Tea Brick Photo Courtesy of

Tea bricks were in fact preferred over metallic coins for the Nomads of Siberia; not only used as money, but eaten as food in times of hunger as well as brewed for drinking. Tea bricks were still used as edible currency in Siberia up until World War II.

So “numismatics”- the study of currency – includes coins, tokens, paper money – and TEA. The numismatics Historian Stuart Mosher, wrote about tea bricks:

In Siberia, Mongolia, Tibet and (China), cakes of compressed tea resembling bricks circulate as money. The natives of Siberia prefer tea-money to coins…they regard brick tea not only as a refreshing beverage but also as a medicine against coughs and colds.

While we know tea is a healthful drink,  the medicinal properties of the ancient tea brick is not clear because of binding properties added to the bricks.

With Tea as currency perhaps “the love of  money” is not the root of all evil after all!

Tea bricks are still currently manufactured, but primarily as souvenirs and novelty items.

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