Tea Bags Were Invented On Accident?

Original tea bag patent photo

Although cultivated tea has been around for thousands of years, the tea bag is a relatively recent invention. The venerable teapot and infuser, and other simpler tea ware such as the gaiwan were used to prepare tea for centuries.

It wasn’t until 1903 that the concept of a tea bag was patented. Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Molaren of Milwaukee, WI came up with the idea of a ‘tea-leaf holder,’ for the purpose of brewing a single serving of tea, instead of brewing a large quantity of tea in a tea pot.

As eloquently stated from the patent: “…the leaves shall be held together against separating and being dispersed through the infusion to be drunk up, which would spoil the pleasure of the drink, and yet the leaves must be so held together as to be exposed fully to the water poured thereon in the cup, so that their qualities shall be freely given off and taken up by the water to produce the desired infusion.”

The Origin Of The Tea Bag

However, tea bags were popularized in 1908 as a happy accident. Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea merchant, sent samples of tea to his customers in small silken bags. Some recipients mistakenly placed the silken bags directly into a teapot instead of emptying out the contents.

It wasn’t until Sullivan started receiving feedback from customers complaining about the fineness of the silk that he realized what happened, and started making gauze tea bags with a more porous weave for the intent of infusing.

Due to their ease of use, tea bags became popular in the US, with commercial production beginning in the 1920’s. In 1930, the heat sealed paper fiber tea bag was patented, resembling the tea bag we are familiar with today. Post WWII, tea bag production ramped up globally.

Today, tea bags are a mixed blessing. It’s easy to find a dizzying array of tea bags in grocery stores, making tea widely accessible to the public. However, the tea that most people are familiar with, at least in the US, is of a considerably low quality.

Tea bags allow for the use of fannings, or dust, which is what is left over from processing higher quality teas. Typically, teas found at the grocery store are of this grade, leaving many with a false perception of what good tea tastes like.

However, a quality tea experience can still be obtained with open ended tea bags. These disposable paper filters offer the convenience of single use and can be filled with any loose leaf tea. Even in the era of modern conveniences, you can still have a quality cup of tea.

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