As the center of major trends in the new year, the complicated history of tea is just as important as its future; but you might be surprised to learn that tea was not always served in a bag. In fact, the tea bag has an origin story that continues to baffle historians and tea enthusiasts alike.
When tea first arrived in 17th-century England, it triggered a widespread shift in drinking habits and culture. Tea became an English staple, with daily doses served alongside meals, on social calls, and as a pairing for dessert. But despite its popularity, loose tea created some problems for avid tea drinkers.
Before the debut of the tea bag, a whole pot of tea needed to be brewed for the sake of having a single cup, meaning more waste, mess, and hassle for consumers. Unfortunately, it would take another three centuries before tea drinkers across the globe would have a solution – but the details remain fuzzy on who we can thank for creating and popularizing the tea bag we know and love today.
One account credits two women from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for the earliest design of the tea bag. According to records, Roberta C. Lawson and Mary McLaren filed a patent application for a “Tea Leaf Holder” in 1901 which offered the convenience of pre-measured, single-serve portions and an easy cleanup.
Although the patent was granted in 1903, it seems that Lawson and McLaren never succeeded in getting their product to market on a large scale. This is perhaps one reason why their contribution has gone predominantly unnoticed by history. Another reason is because of a competing story which remains the most widely told version today.
Even though Lawson and McLaren’s design was introduced several years before, many continue to credit the tea bag as a happy accident created in 1908. According to this account, a New York tea merchant, Thomas Sullivan, was supposedly known for packaging his tea samples into single-serve silk bags for his best customers.
Upon receiving the samples, his customers would mistakenly place the whole bag in hot water – rather than just the tea itself. When tea orders began rolling in, Sullivan was shocked to hear his customers requesting more of the individually packaged bags, rather than the standard containers of loose tea. Later, because the silk bags were too fine to allow for proper steeping, Sullivan switched to gauze sachets, revolutionizing the tea steeping process and overall drinking experience we continue to enjoy today.
As tea has evolved from an Indian export to a western phenomenon, plant-based beverages have become increasingly popular over the last 100 years. Thanks to single-use bags, tea remains a beverage phenomenon that continues to change what the world is drinking.