Brewing Tea Before Tea Bags
Before the tea bag was invented, tea had to be made by pouring hot water over leaves in a tea strainer. The tea leaves had to be cleaned out of the strainer afterwards, making the method inconvenient, time consuming, and messy. It also meant that tea had to be made by the pot instead of in a single-serving mug, which often resulted in unnecessary waste. Tea was brewed this way until the early 1900s, when the tea bag was invented. The history behind exactly who invented the tea bag is a little murky, though, because there are two competing claims to the invention.
The Invention of the Tea Bag
The first claim belongs to Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Molaren of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who filed a patent application in 1901 for the “Tea-Leaf Holder.” Their mesh bag allowed users to brew a single serving of tea right in the mug itself while ensuring that the tea leaves didn’t float around and ruin enjoyment of the drink. Their invention was remarkably similar to the tea bags we use today, but does not seem to have caught on commercially at the time. The second claim belongs to a tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan. In 1908, Sullivan attempted to encourage sales by sending tea samples to customers; he shipped the samples in small silk bags to save on cost. The recipients brewed the tea in the small bags by mistake but quickly realized that the infusion method was convenient and desirable. When they placed their orders with Sullivan, they received loose-leaf tea in cannisters, as was standard at the time. Upset, they wrote letters asking him to send their tea in the small silk bags instead. Sullivan realized that he had stumbled upon a business opportunity and began selling tea bags.
An Eager Public Adoption
In addition to Sullivan, other tea merchants also jumped on the bandwagon and began selling their tea in bags instead of canisters. And although these early tea bags often used sub-par materials that weren’t well suited to steeping and sometimes caused an odd taste, they caught on quickly. (It's important to note that Lawson and Mary Molaren's design was of high quality and a notable exception to this trend.) By the 1920s, the tea bag was firmly established, in part thanks to their inclusion in some WWI rations, but mostly due to the convenience factor, which Americans wholeheartedly embraced.
As the tea bag continued to gain popularity, merchants experimented with different materials for the tea bags, including cheesecloth, gauze, cellophane, and perforated paper before settling on paper fiber. Early tea bags were often hand-sewn or, because it was cheaper and faster, sealed with glue. Tea bags sealed with glue unfortunately exposed drinkers to various chemicals and were known to negatively impact the taste, but consumers appreciated the convenience so much that they continued to buy the products anyway. Thankfully, glue-sealed tea bags and hand-sewn tea bags were both replaced with machine-sewn tea bags, and William Hermanson invented heat-sealed paper tea bags around 1930.
The Lipton Tea company claims credit for being the first to print brewing instructions on the tea tags. But adding instructions wasn’t the only alteration made to tea bags over the years. In 1944, the dominant shape of the tea bag changed from the early sack design to the rectangular style we are familiar with today. In 1952, Lipton introduced the “flo-thru” bag, which featured four sides instead of two in order to allow more water to flow through the tea leaves. The pyramid bag, designed by Brooke Bond, is another style of tea bag created for this purpose. Today, there are many different tea bag shapes to choose from, including circular tea bags, but rectangular or square shaped tea bags are still the most common.
The 1950s and Beyond
Tea bags gained traction quickly from the moment that they were introduced to the American public in the early 20th century. However, their popularity truly exploded in the 1950s. Since the decade focused on convenience as a major value, easy-to-use and cleanup-free tea bags really took off. They even gained traction in Britain, where tea bags had previously struggled to gain a foothold with the tea-drinking public. Today, tea bags continue to be extremely popular and most Americans continue brew their tea using the small but mighty item.