Colonial Tea Prices

Posted by Darren Hartford on

The price of tea in England declined during the 18th century. Now able to afford this commodity, English laborers included tea in their budgets for the first time. A study of such budgets published by Sir Frederick Eden and David Davies discovered that 9% of one’s average earnings was spent on tea, most notably the popular Bohea tea, between 1740 and 1822.[1]

In 1774, the average household income in the American South among the rich was $705, per free household, and $461, per household with slaves. This income was not based on the wage earner’s occupation, but rather a combination of the value of their property and occupation.[2] Converted to the Pound Sterling (£), the currency of the English during the 18th century, $705 was equivalent to £536.90.[3] The pound can be further broken down into 20 shillings (s) or 240 pence (d), where 1s is equivalent to 12d.[4]

In January of 1720, the British East India Company’s Bohea tea arriving in the colonies cost 24s per pound of tea.[5] In the coming decades the price of tea varied greatly between the “early price of 24 shillings per pound of tea to a low of 1 shilling 9 pence per pound of tea.”[6] By December of 1749, competition from the Dutch East India Company forced the British Company to lower their price to 6s6d per box.[7] The English did not feel too threatened because “buyers would always go to the cheapest market.”[8]

Due to parliament’s taxations on tea, such as the stamp act and the 25% importation tax, the British East India Company was unable to make their tea sales impervious to competition. The colonists could purchase tea from the Dutch for 2 shillings 2 pence a pound and then smuggle it into the colonies for only 3 shillings per pound of tea. Purchased from the British, the same tea would cost merchants 4 shillings 1 pence after all the duties. For the merchant-smuggler, one Bohea chest of tea resulted in an extra earning of £20.[9]

[1] Elizabeth W. Gilboy, “The Cost of Living and Real Wages in Eighteenth Century England,” in The Review of Economics and Statistics, Vol. 18, No. 3, (The MIT Press, 1936): 136, 138, accessed July 25, 2016, 

[2] “Appendix 4- The richer colonial South: More evidence,” American incomes ca. 1650-1870, accessed July 25, 2016, 
[3] “ The Currency Converter,” Stephen Ostermiller, last modified July 25, 2616, accessed July 25, 2016, 
[4] M. Boyanova, “British Money,” accessed July 25, 2016, 
[5] Peter Kalm, The America of 1750 Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America: The English Version of 1770, ed. Adolph B. Benson, Vol. II (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1966), 658.
[6] Lee Hardluck Humphrey, “Tea and Coffee Trade in the American Colonies,” accessed July 20, 2016, 
[7] Kalm, The America of 1750 Peter Kalm’s Travels in North America, 670.
[8] Francis Samuel Drake, Tea Leaves: Being a Collection of Letters and Documents Relating to the Shipment of Tea to the American Colonies in the Year 1773, By the East India Tea Company (Boston: A. O. Crane, 1884), XIV. 
[9] Humphrey, “Tea and Coffee Trade in the American Colonies.”