Monday, February 27, 2017

The Lowly Teabag

When have you ever considered the teabag? A paper sack, usually suspended on the end of a string, we dunk them into our cups, mugs and pots without much thought. A question on a Facebook group got me started researching the topic

Teabags have been around forever, right? And they were invented by the English, of course?

Well, no and no. The teabag really hasn't been around as long we you might think. And it didn't begin its long and useful career in England. It started in the place of the Boston Tea Party--right here in the US, although an earlier prototype was employed in China centuries before. During the Tang Dynasty some Chinese sewed small paper bags to hold tea to preserve its flavor, but not to infuse the bags into hot water.

The teabag we know is credited to a man named Thomas Sullivan about 1904. He used silk sewn into small bags to ship his teas, but customers used them to dunk instead. This surprised Sullivan, who hadn't thought of that! But his customers complained that the weave of the fabric was too dense to really let the tea diffuse properly, so Sullivan began using gauze and about 1908 which was more satisfactory. Distribution didn't really become commercially widespread until about 1924.

Some say that Sullivan and his accidental discovery of the teabag doesn't deserve to be credited with the idea because in 1897 Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Molaren of Milwaukee filed for a patent for a "tea leaf holder," which was basically a cloth bag to hold tea leaves loosely so that water could flow around them but the tea would not get in the drinker's mouth (from's History of the Tea Bag).

It took longer for the trend to cross the Atlantic.  The English took a while to accept the teabag, and use did not become widespread in Great Britain until the 1950's. I remember how my English mother turned up her nose at teabags for years, always favoring loose tea brewed in a teapot until at least the 1980's.  (Her favorite teabag was PJ Tips, which she mail-ordered for years).

Tea wasn't the popular drink in Germany, really--coffee was and still is more popular (after beer, I'm sure!). But German Adolf Rambold (above with mustache, posing with his machine) invented a teabag-packing machine in 1929, and in 1949 came up with the "flow-thru" design that is still popular today.

You can make your own teabags too. For how to do it, check out this post I wrote in 2012.

For more on the history of teabags, check out this UK site.

For a Chinese story about the origin of tea, click here.

And many more folktales and legends about teas of all kinds are here.

Now, let's all go have a nice cup of tea. I'll have Bewley's Irish Breakfast. How about you?

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Michelle said...

I do love tea, both hot and iced. Herbal teas as well. I love the tea tins in your first photo.

Boud said...

I'm strictly a loose tea in a pot person! My mom liked PGTips, too, but never took to teabags. She was English, and thought teabags were some foreign invention. Which i guess they were!

Boud said...

I love the little girls' tea-party complete with pug. And my own tipple of choice is English Breakfast.

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