Today, most of us brew our tea with tea bags. We don’t know how much trouble it was to brew tea before these bags were invented! The tea bag truly is a modern convenience and a clever one, at that. Therefore, it’s surprising to hear that the tea bag was invented by accident in 1908. Is this true? Or is there more to the story?
The Accidental Tea Bag Invention Story
We have to be careful with the word invent. While a person may be responsible for popularizing a concept, this doesn’t always mean they deserve total credit for inventing the concept, by accident or not. As the story goes, the tea bag was accidentally invented by Thomas Sullivan in 1908. A New York importer of tea, he was looking for a less expensive way to package tea for his customers. He wanted something lighter and more convenient than tin containers. And if you think about it, you can see his difficulty. Tin is quite a heavy packaging material for such a light-weight item as tea. It added greatly to the expense of shipping.
So, Sullivan began packaging his tea samples in little bags made of silk. The customers were meant to open the bags and pour out the tea to infuse it. In those days, his customers were using metal infusers to brew their tea. When they received the little bags of tea, they assumed that they were meant to be used like the infusers, so they just put the bags into the pot and poured hot water over them. It worked and the tea bag was born. Sounds like Sullivan’s customers were even more clever than he was.
The First Tea Bags Patented
This may be how the tea bag was popularized, but there is more to the story. Or, rather, there is another story about the invention of the tea bag. The true inventors of the tea bag seem to have done so at least seven years prior to Sullivan’s accidental innovation.
In 1901 Roberta C Lawson and Mary Mclaren filed a patent, which was granted, for a Tea-leaf holder. This tea leaf holder was what we today would call a tea-bag. And, unlike Sullivan, the inventors meant for the cloth mesh packages to allow liquid to pass through the contents and for each bag to hold just enough tea for one cup. That’s right. These women truly invented the modern tea bag, and on purpose. Although they were made of cloth instead of paper, they looked quite similar to the tea bags we know today. You can’t tell much from the patent images below, but they are basically depicting mesh bags.
Filed on August 26, 1901, the patent application reads as follows:
To whom it mag concern.-
Be it known that we, ROBERTA O. LAWSON and MARY MOLAREN, citizens of the the United States, residing at Milwaukee, Wisconsin, have invented a new and useful Improvement inTea-Leaf Holders, of which the following is a description, reference being had to the accompanying drawings, which are a part of this specification.
Heretofore it has been common to prepare tea-the infusion so designated by putting a quantity of tea-leaves in a pot and pouring hot water thereon,thus providing a considerable supply of tea, from which a cup of tea was to be poured or drawn off for individual use. This practice involves the use of a considerable quantity of tea-leaves to prepare the desired supply of tea, and the tea, if not used directly, soon becomes stale or wanting in freshness, and therefore unsatisfactory,and frequently a large portion of the tea thus prepared and not used directly has to be thrown away, thus involving much waste and corresponding expense. To obviate this, our object in the present invention is to provide means whereby a small quantity of tea, so much only as is required for a single cup of tea, can be placed in a cup and have water poured thereon to produce only a cup of tea fresh for immediate use. By this means only so much of tea-leaves is used as is required for the single cup of tea, and thereby a cup of fresh. fragrant tea is prepared and the waste occurring but to put the tea-leaves in the cup in which the infusion is prepared and from which it is to be drunk requires that the leaves shall be held together against separating and being dispersed through the infusion to be drunk up, which would spoil the pleasure of the drink, and yet the leaves must be so held together as to be exposed fully to the water poured thereon in the cup, so that their qualities shall be freely given off and taken up by the water to produce the desired infusion. It is also important from a financial standpoint that the means for thus holding the tea-leaves in the cup shall be inexpensive as well as convenient for ready use. Our invention is directed to secure these objects.
The invention consists of the device and its parts and combinations of parts, as hereby preparing a larger quantity shown in Figs. 1, 2, and 5.
Application filed August 26, 1901.’ Serial No. 73,237. (No model.)
of open-mesh fabric employed in the construction of our improved device and in which is shown centrally longitudinal stiffening means and at the upper extremity of which is shown transversely-disposed stiffening and closing means. Fig. 2 shows the strip of fabric in Fig. 1 folded over upon itself and stitched along its side edges, forming a pocket-like construction having a flap at its open end. Fig. 3 represents the pocket-like device of Fig. 2 with the flap at the upper end folded down over the top end of the pocket and enclosed by the means provided. Fig. 4 is an edge view of the pocket shown in Fig. 3, the sides of the pocket being spread apart as they are when the pocket is filled with tea leaves. Fig. 5 is a view of a strip of material for constructing a pocket in which the longitudinal stiffening means is shown in plurality instead of a single means, as shown in Fig. 1.
Our novel tea-holding pocket is constructed of open-mesh woven fabric 6, inexpensively made of cotton thread, and which is preferably provided with marginal selvages 7 and also with end selvages 8 8. If the material is not provided with these selvages, their purpose, which is the strengthening of the fabric at the edges and the ends, may be secured by the common expedient of turning over the edges and ends of the material, forming hems in a manner well known. For stiffening this fabric longitudinally, whereby the pocket when completed is held extended sufficiently to keep its shape generally, We employ small wire 9, which may be woven 1ongitudinally into the fabric or otherwise secured thereto. Such wire or stiffening means may be employed singly, as shown in Fig. 1, or may be employed in plurality, as indicated in Fig. 5.
A transversely-disposed closing means is provided, which is conveniently formed of a small wire 10, secured to one end of” the material 6 conveniently by being Woven into the selvage 8 at that end of the strip or in any equivalent Way. This wire 10 projects laterally in both directions from the fabric 6, as
The pocket is formed by folding the end of the fabric 6 not having the wire 10 over onto the fabric itself at a distance from the end having the wire 10.
The edges of the folded material are then at the open end thereof stitched together, as shown at 11 in Figs. 2 and 3, thus forming a pocket with a flap 12 This is the form of the device as completed, in which form the pocket is to be placed on the market for general use.
In use a supply of tea-leaves is placed in the pocket and the flap 12 is then turned down over the end of the pocket, as shown in Fig. 4. In this form the filled pocket is placed in a cup and boiling water poured thereon, which soon forms the desired infusion, as the water can freely pass through the walls of the pocket and act upon the tea-leaves, causing them to give off their fragrant qualities.
While our pocket is especially adapted for holding tea-leaves, we desire to secure the right thereto for whatever analogous use it can be put to.
What we claim as our invention is l. A holder for tea-leaves or analogous use, consisting of a small pocket provided with a terminal flap and constructed of open-mesh fabric and having a longitudinally-extending stiffening means, a transversely-disposed and laterally-projecting bendable fastening means secured to the terminal and closing flap thereon.
2. A holder for tea-leaves or analogous use, comprising a pocket constructed of open-mesh fabric provided with a flap at its open end formed of the extension of one wall of the pocket fabric, a longitudinal stiffening-wire in the pocket and its flap, and a transversely disposed and laterally-projecting closing-wire in the flap at a distance from the open end of the pocket.
3. A tea-leaf holder, comprising a pocket of open-mesh woven fabric, the pocket being open at one end only and having one wall of the open-mesh material of the pocket extended beyond the mouth of the pocket forming a flap, and a wire transversely of the pocket woven in lieu of a strand of the fabric into the fabric near the edge of the flap and extending laterally beyond the side edges of the pocket, the wire being adapted when the flap is folded over the open end of the pocket and down on the front wall thereof to be bent around the edges of the pocket and against the outer surface of the rear wall thus securing the closed end of the pocket.
4. In a tea-leaf holder, a pocket constructed of open-mesh fabric, and provided with a flap of the pocket material projecting beyond the open end of the pocket,a transverse wire in the flap and projecting laterally beyond the edges of the pocket adapted when. the flap is turned over the mouth of the pocket to be bent around and upon the pocket the wire being of a size substantially the same as a strand of the fabric.
It is not clear whether Lawson and Mclaren ever marketed or sold their invention, but it clear that Thomas Sullivan does not deserve any credit for the invention since tea bags were already being sold by 1908 and had been marketed as early as 1903. While, if the story is true, his customers use of the samples as infusion bags may have been pure happenstance, or they may have already been familiar with the concept and assumed that his ‘tea bags’ were meant to be used like those already on the market.
By the 1930s, there were all sorts of tea bags being used. The functional ones were made of cloth gauze and came in different shapes, like circular, square, or rough sacks. There were also tea ‘bags’ made of cellophane. The first paper tea bags are said to have been invented in 1930 by William A. Hermanson, founder of Technical Papers Corporation, out of Boston.
Tea Bags In the U.K.
The English didn’t think much of this American innovation, viewing it with pessimism to outright shock. Those Americans were ruining tea! In 1953 Joseph Tetley & Company became the first company to offer teabags in the U.K., to great success.