The Invention of the Teabag

The Invention of the Teabag


Tea merchant Thomas Sullivan distributed his tea samples in small, silken bags. Customers, not understanding that these were samples, put them directly in hot water and ask for more of the same.


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A way to get a self-contained, no-muss jolt of caffeine may seem like a quintessentially 21st-century need, but the original single-serving, low-cleanup caffeine delivery method actually hit the market more than 100 years ago.

There's some debate about who invented the very first tea bag. One of the most popular legends has it that American tea importer Thomas Sullivan shipped out samples of his product in silk pouches in 1908, not intending his customers put them directly in hot water that way. Still, some tried it and asked for more of the same.

Seven years earlier, though, Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Molaren of Milwaukee filed for a patent for a "tea leaf holder" that also resembles what we use today. "By this means," they wrote, "only so much of tea leaves are used as is required for the single cup of tea," making less waste. As they detailed in their application, the bag needed to hold the tea leaves together so that they didn't float into the drinker's mouth, but not so tightly that the water could not circulate through them to be infused. Their design used a stitched mesh fabric; Sullivan would later switch from silk to gauze after he saw that the weave of silk was too fine for optimal infusing.


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