The History of the Humble Tea Bag

How could we live without tea bags? These days, 96% of all the tea we drink comes ready to be popped in the pot or dunked in the mug. Four-fifths of office workers say they learn more about what’s going on at work over a cup of tea than in any other way!

Tea bags were invented in America in the early 1900s, after a tea merchant called Thomas Sullivan hit on the idea of making up little silk bags containing samples of his teas, which he then sent round to his customers. Some of them thought they should drop the bag into a pot, and so the tea bag was born. Sullivan went on to make the tea bags better – he switched from silk to gauze, to allow the flavour to escape more easily. Before long, tea bags came with strings attached – literally! Over the years, tea merchants have experimented with all sorts of triangular and circular shapes, using different materials for the bag, even developing a self-squeezing tea bag!

The beauty of the tea bag is its convenience: you can make a cup of tea as easily as a cup of instant coffee, without losing any of the delicious, natural taste. Loose tea leaves unfurling in a tea pot are beautiful, but if the tea leaves steep for too long, the brew gets too strong for some tastes. Removable containers go some way to solving the difficulty, and some people may still use an infuser, a perforated metal container, to brew loose leaf tea in a tea pot, but we think it’s easier to use a tea bag.

Not that it was always seen that way: the British were slow to put their faith in tea bags, which were long seen as a dastardly American innovation like chewing gum or the jitterbug. Even in the early 1960s, tea bags were still rare – just 3% of the total! The British first had to get over their suspicion that the stuff that went into tea bags was no good – just dust and sweepings from the tea factory floor  – whereas in fact the tea that goes into tea bags is as good as can be. It’s just more finely cut, to brew faster than whole leaves in a tea pot. Master blenders work hard using the best quality tea to create blends that infuse quickly, with a good colour in the cup, allowing the tea’s characteristic taste to emerge.