Who Invented the Teabag?

 

Tea mythology claims that the teabag was invented by New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan in 1904 when he sent out samples packed in small silk pouches. That may not be true.

As often happens in history, we cannot always look to a single creation event to permanently enshrine a flashpoint of human discovery. Ideas more often simply evolve – as is true with the lowly teabag. It took several inventors and many patents to bring about the gradual rise of teabags a century ago. The forerunner of the teabag can be traced to American patent applications for a mesh infusing apparatus which appeared as early as 1897.

1903 patent for an open-mesh tea leaf holder invented by two Wisconsin women.

1903 patent for an open-mesh tea leaf holder invented by two Wisconsin women.

Eventually, a patent for an open-mesh, fabric Tea Leaf Holder was filed in 1901 by Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Other designs soon followed. During the 1920s, technological advances in the US led to the development of machinery that could make and pack gauze bags. Fabric was then replaced by filter paper strong enough to hold in the tea but light enough to allow the tea color and flavor to seep out into the water. By the 1930s, giant bagging machines on the floors of a dozen American tea packers whirled around the clock, delivering as many as 18,000 assorted teabags each day. Soon the disposable one-cup wonders were found in every American home kitchen, and loose leaf tea began to disappear from store shelves.

The machines that were invented to pack the first patented teabags only allowed the use of small particles of tea. But the industry found that it was not making enough small grades to fill the growing demand for teabags, and so a new manufacturing method was introduced in order to specifically create large quantities of small tea particles for teabags. Thus CTC (cut, tear and curl) manufacture was invented, and the first CTC machines were installed in a number of Assam tea estates in the 1930s. Teas produced by these machines quickly steeped a strong dark liquor, perfect for the addition of milk.

Although North American tea drinkers took to the teabag in the 1920s and 1930s, bags were not introduced into the UK until Lipton patented its “flo-thru” teabag in 1952. Tetley’s British representative had gone to the US in 1939 and had brought back the idea to the UK, but the company did not actually launch its teabag until 1953. The British were slow to show interest, and by 1968, only 3% of all tea brewed in the UK was prepared using a teabag. By 1971, that had risen to a still negligible 12.5%. But by the end of the twentieth century, the total use of teabags accounted for approximately 96% of all tea brewed in the UK.

Millions of teabags flow through the production line daily at Celestial Seasonings in Boulder, Colorado.

Millions of teabags flow through the production line daily at Celestial Seasonings in Boulder, Colorado.

As a consequence of teabag use, tea drinkers could no longer see, feel, smell or respond to the leaf inside the bag. And as often happens when consumable products are pre-packaged ready for instant use, consumers gradually lost their immediate connection with the product and became far less aware of origin and leaf appearance. Tea, through no fault of its own, lost its romance and charm as the 20th century progressed, becoming just another commodity on the supermarket shelf.

Thankfully, a tea renaissance emerged as the century came to a close and people are re-discovering the joy of drinking quality loose leaf teas again.