The Story of the Tea Bags

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Prof. Ashoka tells us the intriguing story of the invention of the tea bags, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

The first patent for a tea bag, entitled Tea-Leaf Holder, was issued to Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1903. Their invention, which was a little pouch made of open-mesh fabric, looked similar to modern tea bags but was never manufactured. Tea bags appeared commercially around 1904, but it was the tea and coffee shop merchant Thomas Sullivan from New York who first marketed them successfully.

At the turn of the 20th century, tea was much more expensive than today and highly prized by those that could afford it. In New York, customers eagerly awaited each new cargo from India and China. When the latest shipment arrived in port, tea traders like Sullivan would send out samples, using small metal tins to hold the tea.

Legend has it that Sullivan became annoyed at the high cost of the tins and switched to small hand-sewn silk bags in June 1908. Customers were supposed to remove the loose tea from the little bags to brew it, but some found it easier to just drop the filled bags into hot water. Realising how convenient such a simple disposable bag was, they soon started requesting their tea in this packaging, much to Sullivan’s surprise! One thing that they did complain about was that the mesh on the silk bags was too fine.

In response, Sullivan developed sachets made of gauze, which were the first purpose-made tea bags. Unfortunately, Sullivan failed to take out a patent on his invention and little is known of what happened to him or his company afterward. Others soon realised its commercial potential and began experimenting with other types of materials including cheesecloth, cellophane, and punched paper. Machines were also invented to replace the hand sewing of tea bags.

During the 1920s, tea bags began to be mass-produced and grew in popularity in the US. Today tea bags are mostly made out of the paper fibre. It was William Hermanson, one of the founders of Technical Papers Corporation of Boston, who invented these heat-sealed paper fibre tea bags. In 1930, Hermanson sold his patent to the Salada Tea Company.

The rectangular tea bag was not invented until 1944. Prior to this, tea bags resembled small sacks. It was Tetley that introduced tea bags in Britain in 1953 and was quickly followed by other companies. By 2007, tea bags made up a phenomenal 96 percent of the British market.

Serialised from the book, Popular Triumphs of Human Innovation in Everyday Life, by Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

Photos from the Internet

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Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.