NO “Tea Bags” at Boston Harbor

Revolutionary War Image

Contrary to what the American media have been reporting these past few weeks, no “Tea Bags” were thrown into Boston Harbor during the American Revolution. The colonial tax protesters threw crates of tea into the harbor, which may have contained these oven-baked “Tea Bricks.” There was NO SUCH THING as a “Tea Bag” in those days. The Boston Tea Party happened in 1773. The “Tea Bag” was invented 135 years later, in 1908.

Our colonial ancestors were protesting the raising of taxes without representation when they stopped purchasing and drinking British tea. When the brave Bostonians of so long ago, participated in their Boston Tea Party, there was no such thing as a “Tea Bag” anywhere in the world. One method of shipping tea to colonial America was to pack the dried leaves into heavy, compressed, baked bricks, as illustrated above, tightly packed in wooden crates. This protected the tea leaves from mildew and dampness during the long months at sea and in storage.

America’s media such as Chris Matthews of MSNBC and Anderson Cooper of CNN got it wrong when they described these current tax protests as “Tea Bag” Parties.

UPDATE: Here is a great photograph of some of the original tea which washed up on the shoreline after the Boston Tea Party of 1773: Massachusetts Historical Society 

The image, Tea Bricks – NOT Tea Bags!, is subject to copyright by barneykin. It is posted here with permission via the Flickr API by barneykin.

13 Responses to NO “Tea Bags” at Boston Harbor

  1. Dan says:

    Actually it wasn’t brick tea either. I only know this because I thought the same thing but reading accounts of the day I discovered that it was loose leaf tea that was thrown into the harbor. Brick tea was around but not popular in the Colonys. There are also lists of the type of tea and in another surprise much of it (but not all) was green tea. Only some of it was the Bohea tea mentioned in period songs.

  2. neddy says:

    Some of the museums of Revolutionary War items have on display the original chests that were thrown into the harbor. The chests were designed to hold bricks of tea, not loose tea. If you can give links to where this information exists, I would appreciate it. This is the first I have ever heard that they threw tea leaves into the harbor.

  3. neddy says:

    George Hewes was a member of the band of “Indians” that boarded the tea ships in December 1773, and he wrote about it. Note there is NO mention of “Tea Bags.”

    “We then were ordered by our commander to open the hatches and take out all the chests of tea and throw them overboard, and we immediately proceeded to execute his orders, first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as thoroughly to expose them to the effects of the water.

    “In about three hours from the time we went on board, we had thus broken and thrown overboard every tea chest to be found in the ship, while those in the other ships were disposing of the tea in the same way, at the same time. We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us.

    “…The next morning, after we had cleared the ships of the tea, it was discovered that very considerable quantities of it were floating upon the surface of the water; and to prevent the possibility of any of its being saved for use, a number of small boats were manned by sailors and citizens, who rowed them into those parts of the harbor wherever the tea was visible, and by beating it with oars and paddles so thoroughly drenched it as to render its entire destruction inevitable.”


  4. J. L. Bell says:

    In re: “Some of the museums of Revolutionary War items have on display the original chests that were thrown into the harbor.”

    To my knowledge, there is one possible surviving chest from the Boston Tea Party, now owned by the company working to rebuild the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum. Nothing about that chest indicates that it was designed for tea bricks.

    So we have to go to documentary sources, such as the shipping records (reprinted in B. W. Labaree’s Boston Tea Party) and recollections of participants such as Ebenezer Stevens. Those indicate that the wooden chests were wrapped in canvas and full of loose leaves of particular sorts of tea, most black and some green.

    There are no remarks in those documents about tea bricks, nor in other depictions of tea-drinking in British North America. Such bricks were a technological solution to the challenge of transporting tea over land to markets elsewhere in Asia.

    It’s true that tea bags were just as unknown in Britain’s North American colonies as tea bricks.

  5. neddy says:

    Everything I’ve read so far confirms my impression that it was NOT loose tea thrown into the harbor.

    “The casks were opened and the tea dumped overboard; the work, lasting well into the night, was quick, thorough, and efficient. By dawn, over 342 casks or 90,000 lbs (45 tons) of tea worth an estimated £10,000 or $1.87 million USD in 2007 currency) had been consigned to waters of Boston harbor. Nothing else had been damaged or stolen, except a single padlock accidentally broken and anonymously replaced not long thereafter.

    “Tea washed up on the shores around Boston for weeks. Many citizens of Boston attempted to carry off this tea. In an effort to thwart this looting, people rowed several small boats out to where the tea was visible and beat it with oars, rendering it unusable.”

    Here is another firsthand account which does seem to imply they were not hard bricks of tea (

    “Many a wishful eye was directed to the piles of tea which lay in the docks and one poor fellow (5) who could not resist the temptation had filled the lining of his cloak with about a bushel of the plants. He was soon observed by the crowd and the process of lightening him of his burden was short. He was dragged a little distance on the wharf to a barrel and was soon furnished with a coat of tar and shavings.”

  6. Dan Shippey says:

    The first account mentioned from George Hewes record of events says this also.

    “During the time we were throwing the tea overboard, there were several attempts made by some of the citizens of Boston and its vicinity, to carry off small quantities of it for their family use. To effect that object, they would watch their opportunity to snatch up a handful from the deck, where it became plentifully scattered, and put it into their pockets. One Captain O’Conner, whom I well knew, came on board for that purpose, and when he supposed he was not noticed, filled his pockets, and also the lining of his coat. But I had detected him, and gave information to the captain of what he was doing.

    Then later

    Another attempt was made to save a little tea from the ruins of the cargo, by a tall aged man, who wore a large cocked hat and white wig, which was fashionable at that time. He had slightly slipped a little into his pocket, but being detected, they seized him, and taking his hat and wig from his head, threw them, together with the tea, of which they had emptied his pockets, into the water. In consideration of his advanced age, he was permitted to escape, with now and then a slight kick.

    There is also a surviving bottle of tea from the tea party at the Massachusetts Historical Society

    I do wish we could all just go back in time with a camera and get some good pictures.

  7. neddy says:

    Thanks for that great link Dan. My impression had always been that tea was shipped in those baked bricks as a way of preserving the tea from mildew and dampness which would have ruined it. Perhaps my impression was not accurate. I cannot find anything to document exactly how the tea was shipped. Hopefully, someone will be able to do so. I am revising my post. But one thing is certain. The tea was not shipped as TEA BAGS!

  8. Dan Shippey says:

    I don’t think you will find any argument on the Tea Bag issue.
    I really enjoy your site and I believe the more people talking and thinking about the Revolution the better.
    Tea Parties have become as iconic as flags behind a politician. I have seen everything from anti war tea parties to anti big government tea parties. The connection to the Boston Tea Party is really only the spirit of American protest. I like them all because they provide a chance to talk about the 1st tea party just as your blog did. The discussion also forced me to go back and find some of my old research on the subject to explain why I believe what I believe. I still haven’t found one of the letters I was looking for but I found a few new things by accident.
    Thanks for keeping a great and important conversation about our Country’s founding going.


  9. Craig Worley says:

    The only way to follow what “They” say is to know that I am the man in the Mirror?!! I always look at what I do so i can be Aligned with God. If only the Tea parties were really Patriotic Movements. “They” take names and don’t kick a_ _. I wonder Who would be doing this?!! Maybe the cia or some other type or form of our goverment. They Hate crime. (their version of it anyWay!!!) A man that loves GOD!

  10. JP says:

    Maybe they were tea bricks, but compressed bricks of pu-erh tea as in this Wikipedia entry:

  11. If you read George Robert Twelves Hewes account (as he was the only participant who wrote of this event) he twice acknowledges that two people tried to steal, and put in there pockets the loose tea off the decks of the three ships… since they were breaking the casts, and throwing the contents (unsmashed) over board it would indicate (although not specifically stated) the tea was loose. (since they were stuffing it into small waist-coat pockets.

    “first cutting and splitting the chests with our tomahawks, so as to throughly to expose them to the effects of the water.” ~ “During this time we were throwing the tea overboard, there were several attempts made by some of the citizens of Boston and its vicinity to carry off small quantities of it for their family use. To effect that object, they would watch their opportunity to snatch up a “handful” from the deck, where it became plentifully scattered, an put it into their pockets.”

  12. Carol says:

    I have recently done some extensive research on loose vs brick tea. There is a description of the packing of the tea chest in Canton from a sailor aboard the Neptune in the 1790’s. I also found a painting from the same time period and photos from the late 1800’s that confirm the sailor’s description. China had switched to loose tea as the preferred tea prior to the 1600’s although brick tea was still going to Tibet and Mongolia. There may have been some brick tea that came in through the Northwest Territories by way of Russia but it would have been very minimal. The tea chests were lined with lead, a worker would stomp down the loose tea very tightly in the chest and then the lead lid was soldered on making it airtight. The colonist had to chop into the chest in order to open up holes in the lead lining. Tea actually has a very interesting history. The brick tea is a good example of repeating something so often it becomes fact.

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