Tea bags: they became popular purely by coincidence, thanks to an American tea trader

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Milica Sterjova
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The origin of the first tea bag has been the subject to debates but there are two main versions, both from the United States. The first one involves Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Mclaren. Both women had filed for a patent for a “tea leaf holder“ in 1901. They stated that their invention should hold tea leaves together so they wouldn’t enter in the mouth whilst drinking the tea. The invention also offered the possibility to make a single cup of tea, opposite to the usual practice of making a whole pot.

The more popular and widely spread story is that of Thomas Sullivan, a tea importer from New York. According to this version, tea bags were invented accidentally in 1908. Instead of the usual metal tins, Sullivan used small silk bags to send samples of his tea to potential customers to boost his sales. He never thought that some of them would put the whole bag into the tea pot, not just the tea.

Surprisingly, people were delighted by the new idea. The bag was simple to use, and the pot was easier to clean. After some of them made the order for tea, he packed the merchandise in the usual containers. He received several complaints about the packages; people demanded that their tea should be packed in the small bags. However, Lawson and Mclaren’s patent application came before Sullivan’s tea bags.

Filter paper tea bags. Author: André Karwath aka Aka. CC BY-SA 2.5

Silk wasn’t the optimal material for tea bags because it was too expensive for a single use and because of this Sullivan replaced silk with gauze. Shortly after, other companies started experimenting with different materials and different shapes. Starting with the early bags in the shape of a sack, a variety of forms have been introduced throughout history, including round, pyramid, or tube shaped. Regarding the materials used, they have changed through the years, but filter paper has been used most often.

Tea bag, 1940-1941, cotton bag, tied with string, dropped by allied Planes over occupied Holland. Author: KingaNBM. CC BY-SA 4.0

The small bags in which tea was packed became an instant hit in the United States and commercial production began in the 1920s. Unfortunately this led to decline a in quality of the tea packed in the bags. However, consumers didn’t seem to mind much, they were satisfied with the fact that the product was convenient and it took them less time to prepare the tea.

Pyramidal silk tea bag of spiced black tea.

The very first tea bag packing machine was invented in 1929 by a German engineer called Adolf Rambold, employed by Teekanne, a German tea trading company. The machine was called “Pompadour” and could make 35 tea bags in one minute. Teekane is also responsible for the invention of the double chamber tea bag introduced in 1949. The bag was the solution of several problems experienced with single chamber tea bags made of cloth. First of all, the original folding technique used in Teekane tea bags eliminated the glue that was previously used to seal the bag and which worsened the taste of the tea. Secondly, the design allowed better water circulation which gave tea a better flavor.

Lipton tea advertisement from The Ladies Home journal (1948)

Tea bags in Great Britain became popular decades later. The British received the object with a dose of suspicion because it was a big change in the usual process of making tea. The scarcity of materials during World War II also delayed the mass acceptance of tea bags in the country. They finally became popular in the 1950s, the decade when a variety of household objects which saved time were being introduced to the market. The first company to sell tea bags in Britain was Tetley and they started doing it in 1953.

A cup of tea. Author: Pasi Mämmelä. CC BY-SA 2.0

Tea bags have only gained in popularity since their appearance although some may argue that loose leaf tea tastes way better than the one in the tea bags. However, they are widely used all around the globe today. About 98% of Americans and 96% of the British use tea bags for making tea.