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I'd like to know 2 or 3 of the following 3 metrics:

  • Actual value in the currency of the time (yes I realize that there were local currencies and in general FX concept was... hard to do).

  • NPV (inflation adjusted) value, however such values are calculated for economy of the time.

  • Value relative to some useful comparison figure, e.g. total budget of the Colonies/Mass or total taxes levied or total value passing through Boston port in a period of time or something similar.

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up vote 10 down vote accepted

This information turned out surprisingly easy to find. The Boston Tea Party museum website lists the following facts:

  • 342 chests on three ships
  • 92,000 pounds (roughly 46 tons)
  • reported damage £9,659
  • equivalent to $1,700,000 in todays money

I would be very careful with the total weight stated, particularly because the one chest I could find definitely didn't hold 120 kg (then again, nobody says that all chests were of the same size). As to the stated damage, according to this book the source is the Boston Gazette from 30 May 1774. This number is quoted in most other places as well, yet there is another estimate mentioning £18,000. For example, here you can read:

the value of the tea thrown into the sea at Boston in 1773 is estimated at 18 thousand pounds sterling, at eighteen pence per pound

Given that a pound sterling was equivalent to 240 pence this estimate apparently assumes 240,000 pounds of tea. I consider that number rather unlikely and it is unclear where it comes from. Maybe damage from similar accidents has been added up here and attributed to the Boston Tea Party.

Now it is a big question how much £9,659 would be worth in todays money, most estimates I've seen are significantly lower than the one mentioned above (a million US dollar or less). This article gives various estimates for the historical value of a pound sterling but after reading it you are probably no wiser than before. Let's go for a simplification, the article The Wealth of Women, 1774 uses the following approximation:

I conclude it fair to say that what could be purchased for one pound sterling in 1774 would cost on the average about $76 in 1982.

The USA inflation calculator tells us that 1982 prices have to be multiplied with 2.35 to get 2011 prices. Consequently we get 9,659 * 76 * 2.35 = $1,725,097. Wow, that's remarkably close to the value calculated by the museum.

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Wonder how much tea you'd need to destroy today to total up $1.7Mil? :) Excellent answer, thanks! –  DVK Nov 24 '11 at 7:33
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@DVK: With Amazon US apparently selling Darjeeling tea for roughly $20 per pound - pretty much the same :). But retail prices are way lower of course. –  Wladimir Palant Nov 24 '11 at 7:57
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The chest isn't that big in real life, it made me wonder if they were all the same size how long it took these guys to throw all the chests overboard. Although the guides on the ship did concur with you, they didn't really know if the chests were all the same size. Carpenters did have some standardization but often boxes were made to fit the cargo and some packing. –  MichaelF Nov 24 '11 at 13:07
    
@MichaelF: Yes, pictures like this one show much larger chests which look more like they could hold 120 kg of tea. Then again - these are drawings that were made after the fact, probably by people who weren't even there. Which is why I tried to find the "real thing". Btw, I think I read somewhere that the "party" took 3 hours - not unreasonable for the heavy chests. –  Wladimir Palant Nov 24 '11 at 13:35
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The Robinson tea chest is a half chest so it's extra small. But 92000 pounds of tea would take up roughly 3400 cubic feet, and that means around 10 cubic feet per chest is needed, which makes the chests something like 30*30*20 inches. This is significantly larger than any tea chests I can find, which are somewhere in the vicinity of 20x20x25 inches or so, and seem to be in that range from the 18th century to today. So that value might have been inflated, but it's likely to be at least a million dollars or so. –  Lennart Regebro Nov 25 '11 at 9:15
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