A History Of The Humble Tea Bag


A History Of The Humble Tea Bag

As a child I remember my grandmother making tea by putting leaves in a little metal ball that had tiny holes in it and a chain that could be dangled over the side of the cup. I always assumed it was some lavish present that she held onto as a means of remembering my long deceased grandfather. Turns out I was wrong, it was simply an old habit that she never grew out of, for tea bags were a fancy newfangled thing to her…

When I saw a link to the History of Tea Bags I simply assumed that I’d be reading about the Chinese, Indians and Sri Lankan’s developing different types of container / bags hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. So it cam as quite a shock to discover that actually, my gran would have looked at them as a odd, new idea…

History of the Tea Bag

The first tea bags were actually developed totally by accident. An American Tea Merchant, Thomas Sullivan, was looking for a simple way of sending samples to potential clients. Rather than wasting lots of tea, or sending too much, he came up with the idea of placing a sample into a small silk purse. His intention was for the sample to then be used in the traditional way, via a strainer or in a tea pot or through using one of the traditional metal ball devices. His clients though just assumed that the silk purse was to be used in the same way as the metal tea infusers.

Upon discovering that his clients were simply dunking the bags into hot water, he realised that he had struck gold. His clients spoke to him and the merits of the idea and he quickly realised that this was a simple means of distributing his Tea far and wide. In 1904 he patented the Tea Bag. Soon he was distributing it across America and exporting it far and wide.

Such a simple solution, you would have thought, would have spread quickly throughout the Tea drinking world. Amazingly it did not. The British, renowned for their conservatism, simply didn’t pick up on the idea. Even the coming of the American forces in both the First and Second World Wars did little to change the traditional British method of brewing a pot of tea.

It wasn’t until 1953 that Tea Bags were used on a commercial scale in the UK. Tetley’s Tea being the first to sell Tea Bags. However Tea Bags in the 1950’s accounted for less than 5% of Tea Sales in the UK (in 2007 it was 96% of Tea Sales). The boom in Tea Bag usage came in the 1960’s as the now commonplace perforated Tea Bag was introduced and sales blossomed.

Early Tetley's Tea Bag


Early Tetley’s Tea Bags

So put in context of my opening comment about my grandmother finding them odd… she’d retired by the time they were really widely used… indeed the humble Ta Bag wasn’t really a market leader until roughly about the time I entered the world (early 70’s).

There’s an interesting article about the 100th anniversary of the Tea Bag being invented here.

And finally… I have no idea what possessed me to write about Tea Bags. I can’t stand tea!

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