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First tea bag

For such a commonplace cupboard essential, the origin of the tea bag is steeped in a surprising amount of mystery – no one seems to be able to pinpoint exactly who invented it.

Round tea bags

There’s certainly an argument that tea bags were first used in ancient China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), with the earliest written half-mention found in a book called ‘The Classic of Tea’ (Chájīng). Written by Lu Yu between around 760 and 762, it is considered one of the most important texts on tea ever written and describes the preparation and enjoyment of the drink in sumptuous and poetic detail.

The Classic of Tea’ (Chájīng) written by Lu Yu

One chapter is wholly dedicated to brewing methods, including advice on adding loose leaves directly into a teapot or using various types of filters, strainers or cloth bags to separate the tea leaves from the infusion, with the bags referred to as “tea pillows" or “tea sacks”.

But despite this ancient documentation, the story of tea bags only really started hotting up in the more modern era.

Fast forward to Temperance times in the United Kingdom, early to mid-1800s. As a reaction to the drunkenness and excess of the previous century (the rise of cheap throat-stripping gin and Hogarth’s subsequent satiric print ‘Gin Lane’), the Temperance movement was founded to try to limit or eliminate the consumption of alcoholic drinks. A campaigner called Joseph Livesey was one of the most outspoken advocates of the age, opening the first temperance hotel in 1833 and publishing the first temperance magazine, The Preston Temperance Advocate, in 1834.

The Temperance Movement

Tea became the natural alternative to alcohol for the movement, promoting sobriety, a healthier lifestyle and providing a sociable experience without the negative effects of the ‘demon drink’. The Temperance Society started hosting huge ‘tea parties’, which would attract 100s of attendees, leading to what some saw as the invention of the tea bag, as described in the July issue The Preston Temperance Advocate in 1836.

At the tea-parties in Birmingham they made the tea in large tins, about a yard square, and a foot deep, each one containing as much as will serve about 250 persons. The tea is tied loosely in bags, about 1/4 lb in each. At the top there is an aperture, into which the boiling water is conveyed by a pipe from the boiler, and at one corner there is a tap, from which the tea when brewed is drawn out. It may be either sweetened or milked, or both, if thought best, while in the tins. Being thus made, it can be carried in teapots, or jugs, where those cannot be bad. Capital tea was made at the last festival by this plan.”

On a side note, the movement’s ultimate goal was of course ‘tee-totalism’. While it would be perfect for the word’s etymology to have come from benefits of tea drinking it seems to be universally accredited (perhaps apocryphally) to campaigning speech-maker Richard Turner, who had a stammer, and was telling the crowd of his “total abstinence” but came out as “t-t-t-total”!).

If the Temperance Society started using tea bags out of practicality and necessity, it wasn’t long before other people started to see the commercial benefits of serving tea in bags on a more individual level.

An early prototype was created by a Boston man called Thomas Fitzgerald in 1880. His patent (No. 234,556) detailed a ‘long-handled muslin or cloth bag to contain tea or coffee that was secured to a removable float’. The bag could be removed to be filled with tea and an elongated handle was attached to the float to carry it from kitchen to table (today they’re more commonly known as ‘tea socks’). New updated designs were drawn by Massachusetts-based inventor Edward Dillingham in 1893, who wrote: “My improved strainer is made in the form of a bag, one end of which is left open for the insertion of a quantity of cofiee or tea” (stet). He even told us of its potential convenience: “My improved strainer can be made very compact, containing enough coifee or tea to make one or more cups, and can becarried in the pocket... It will be found very convenient for travelers”.

However, one of the strongest claims of being the inventor of the individual tea bag comes from two women from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

On 26th August 1901, Roberta C Lawson and Mary McLaren officially filed a patent for their functionally titled ‘Tea Leaf Holder’ (No. 723,287). In their description, they give a well-reasoned argument for its time and waste-saving potential. At the time, people traditionally made tea in a teapot, adding in more leaves than were necessary, leading to a lot of wastage and generally a less than ‘fresh’ drinking experience as the tea stewed for longer. Their invention promised “only so much of tea-leaves is used as is required for the single cup of tea and thereby a cup of fresh, fragrant tea is prepared”.

Tea Leaf Holder patent by Roberta C Lawson and Mary McLaren

So they were essentially encouraging tea-drinking folk to ditch the teapot and make individual cups with their “novel tea-holding pocket constructed of open-mesh woven fabric, inexpensively made of cotton thread… The filled pocket is placed in a cup and boiling water poured thereon, which soon forms the desired infusion, as the water can freely pass through the walls of the pocket and act upon the tea-leaves, causing them to give off their fragrant qualities”.

This solved the problem of wastage, of getting leaf bits in your mouth as you sipped (“which would spoil the pleasure of the drink”) and proved more convenient if you were making a cup for one. So are Roberta and Mary the inventors of the tea bag? The internet certainly doesn’t think so.

Even the briefest of Googles credits the invention to be the work of a New York tea merchant called Thomas Sullivan. Yet his story isn’t so different to the ones before – it’s just recounted in a more romanticised, serendipitous way.

New York tea merchant around 1900s

I can’t find any information on Sullivan’s early life, some saying he was of Irish descent while others swearing he was all-American. I also can’t find any record of his shop, purportedly called T.S. Sullivan & Company, or even confirm the year the events were said to happen (there are conflicting dates of 1904 and 1908). But boring old facts sometimes get in the way of a good story though, don’t they?

Thomas Sullivan

Legend has it that in 1904 (that’s the year I’m plumping for…) tea entrepreneur Thomas Sullivan started sending out his latest imported Chinese or Indian tea samples to potential customers in small silk pouches rather than the more expensive wooden boxes or metal tins that were common. It was a genius move, not only was it more convenient and saved him a ton of money in stock, transport weight and packaging – he also made the dried tea leaves look aesthetically attractive!

His customers, unused to this new delivery method, assumed his silk pouches were meant to be put straight into boiling water rather than pouring the leaves out into their metal tea infusers as before. And they loved the convenience of it!

Pretty soon, they were coming back to him in their droves asking for more of the ‘tea bags’ he sent. Like any good entrepreneur, he immediately saw the potential and pivoted his business. At first, he continued to make the bags out of hand-sewn silk, but it gradually proved too expensive and the tight weave didn’t allow the leaves to infuse as much, so he moved to gauze.

Sullivan’s story goes cold from then on. He clearly didn’t patent the idea as the use of tea bags started becoming more and more widespread, especially in the USA. Many companies started imitating his bag using gauze or muslin but made them in two distinct sizes – a small one for a single cup and a larger one for teapots.

German soldiers enjoying 'teebombes'

The First World War certainly helped cement the new tradition in the tea drinking psyche – proving convenient, practical and mess-free in the trenches for both Allied and German soldiers. In fact, in Germany, a company called Teekanne would routinely distribute small cotton tea bags tied with string (pre-filled with tea leaves and sugar) as part of a soldier’s daily rations, which were quickly nicknamed “teebombes” because they mimicked the shape of early hand grenades.

An engineer at the same German company called Adolf Rambold – who was a prolific inventor in the industry – created the world’s first tea bag packing machine in 1929, known as Pompadour. A year later, the first paper tea bags came into being, invented by an American called William Hermanson. One of the founders of a Boston-based business called Technical Papers Corporation, he is said to have patented the heat-sealed paper fibre tea bag that had a resistance to high temperatures. The market was hesitant at first, questioning whether glued paper would affect the taste of the tea but were soon won over. Hermanson sold his patent to the Salada Tea Company, one of the biggest tea manufacturers in the USA at the time, in 1930 (interestingly, in 1995, Teekanne bought them out – although they’d become Redco foods by then!).

Adolf Rambold

In 1935, Rambold was the first person to work out how to manufacture a tea bag which came in its own paper wrapper (U.S. patent number 2,101,225). In 1948, he designed and applied for a patent for the revolutionary double-chamber tea bag, made from clever folding of a single piece of paper without glue or heat sealing.

It was a revolutionary design, enabling water to circulate the leaves better (later copied by Lipton and called ‘Flo-Thru’); so iconic and important it’s even on display at MoMA, Museum of Modern Art, object number 167.2005 if you’re interested.

I told you Rambold was prolific. Apparently, he filed patent applications right up until he was 87 years old!

And then the boom began in earnest. Well-known modern brands like Tetley and Lipton started mass-producing tea bags for every household after World War II, selling boxes of them in grocery stores rather than specialist tea merchants from the 1950s.

The only real innovations after that came in the shape of the bag. From ‘sacks’ or balls to rectangular, circular and even pyramidal in 1996.

Lipton tea bag shape evolution

The use of tea bags is now the most common way to make a tea in the world. UK statistics from 2021 show that Brits got through about 61 billion tea bags a year (averaging four cups a day), which is enough to cover over 31,000 football pitches apparently! And I can’t imagine that number declining since.

So, to all the tea bag revolutionaries and evolutionaries of the world, we raise a brew to you.

Ad for tea, USA, around 1900s
Splendid Tea! 1881. Museum of the City of New York


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