Inside Our Food

Tea bags | Where do they come from?

Sugary tea pressed into someone's hands after bad news. Steaming green tea carefully poured in an ancient ceremony. Or a floral china teapot lovingly filled for a favourite grandchild's visit. Across cultures and continents, a cup of tea is so much more than a hot drink. But where do teabags fit into the picture? Not so long ago, tea bags were unheard of! Read on to find out how so many of us left loose leaves in the past.

A teaspoon of history

Nowadays, the tea bag is commonly used but ask someone from 1880, and they wouldn’t know what you're talking about. The tea bag was only invented in the early 20th century. 

But as nothing in life is ever simple, neither is the story of the tea bag origins. There are a few stories surrounding the discovery of the tea bag. Weirdly enough, none from England (probably because they did not invent tea and tea came originally from China but that is a whole other discussion). 

Two Milwaukee women applied for a patent in 1901 for a ‘tea-leaf holder’. They created a bag made of mesh that was designed to hold the amount of tea leaves needed for exactly one cup of tea.

Back then tea was often wasted because you needed to brew a whole pot of tea if you were just craving one cup.1 But, there has been no confirmation that these ‘leaf-holders’ ever went into production.

On the other hand, it’s been said that it was Thomas Sullivan, a tea importer, who invented the tea bag by accident in 1908. He sent out tea samples to his clients in silk pouches instead of the metal tins that were usually used to send out tea samples. His customers didn’t realise that they were supposed to take the tea out of the pouch. They put the tea (silkbag and all) into the water and were so amazed by how easy it was to brew. This convenience then caught on and we still use tea bags today.2

Evolution of the tea bag

Well, material and shape changed a bit since early 1901. The patent described mesh as the material for the bags. Sullivan used silk but later discovered that the silk is to fine for good infusion.

Later materials varied between gauze, cloth, perforated paper and today, there are also biodegradable alternatives.

The first tea bags were sown together. As it evolved, glue was also used, which actually influenced the taste of the tea and not for the better. In 1930, the hot-sealed paper method was developed.3 This method crimps the sides of the tea bag together with heat. Sometimes today you can see that the tea bags are also stapled.

The general shape of a tea bag hasn’t changed much. The most common is the double pouch bag (that are also awesome for kids’ science experiments, just empty the tea bag, fold it open so it’s a long cylinder, set it on fire and then you might see the tea bag fly), and square and round bags without strings. Today you can find also tea bags in the shape of a pyramid so that even long-leaf tea can fit into a tea bag and a better infusion.

Public acceptance of the tea bag

One major problem occurred with tea bags. The tea in the bags wasn’t necessarily always the best quality– often, it was just dust and not full leaves. Therefore, tea lovers weren’t the biggest fans of tea bags and still preferred loose-leaf tea. In Britain, for example, the tea bag wasn’t commonly used until the 50s, maybe also because it was an American invention. Today you can also get high-quality tea in tea bags. 1,4

And then there’s the whole health and sustainability argument. Some question whether tea bags affect our health (since some of them can be bleached), and others question if tea bags just produce excess waste. Well, there’s always the alternative of reusable tea filters!


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