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Who Invented the Tea Bag?

Teabags are definitely commonplace today. Most teas, especially those sold at grocery stores, come in tea bags. The bags make it easier and less messy to have tea and more convenient to keep it contained on the go. Naturally, with an invention like that, you may wonder, who really did it?

The teabag, like most products, has evolved since its conception. The teabag as we know it was supposedly invented by a tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan in 1908. However, there are a few interesting things to note about the tea bag that may otherwise go unnoticed. 

In this article, you’ll learn about the man who invented the tea bag, why he did it, how he did it, and how it was received. In addition, as you keep reading, you’ll learn a little bit about why the teabag Sullivan invented and the teabags you see today are so different. 

Thomas Sullivan and the Teabag

Thomas Sullivan was a tea merchant who was based in New York. In addition to tea, he sold coffee. When he was shipping his product to customers, he sent it along in silk pouches. Customers then began preparing the beverages while keeping the leaves in the pouches, and the rest was (a convoluted) history. 

Tea legend has it that the teabag was not invented on purpose; Sullivan never explicitly said to customers to use the bags this way. However, since it was his product and his packaging, he is most often credited with the invention of the modern teabag. 

New Age Tea Bags

There is quite a difference between Sullivan’s teabags and the teabags we buy at the grocery store today. For one, Sullivan used silk for his teabags. However, silk is an expensive fabric, and teabags gained popularity very quickly. 

Once more and more large companies began to adopt this method, they also began looking for ways to cut the cost of production. As a result, factories opted for paper-based, flow-through filter bags rather than fabric in the 1930s. These new bags were:

  • Less expensive to make 
  • Less expensive to buy 
  • Sometimes compostable

The Technology Already Existed 

Thomas Sullivan may have literally put the tea in the bags, but he may not have actually invented the idea. There are several patents for the same type of mechanism, dating back to as early as 1900. 

Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren 

The first patent for a tea infusing apparatus was filed by two women from Milwaukee named Mary McLaren and Roberta Lawson. Originally called the Tea Leaf Holder, the invention was made to do just that. 

The idea behind having an infuser that kept the leaves separate from the water was so that the person preparing the tea could use fewer leaves. With a standard infuser, you only use enough leaves to make one cup. This makes it less likely for there to be any waste or for your tea to get stale and bitter before you have the chance to finish it. 

The Tea Leaf Holder was made with mesh rather than filter paper or fabric, and it more closely resembles the modern-day carafe than a Sullivan-style teabag. The patent was granted to the women in 1903.

glass teacup with tea bag suspended. who invented the tea bag

How Many Other Patents Were There?

There have been many different patents for various iterations of the teabag. Ironically, none of them were filed by Thomas Sullivan. The fact that he never tried to take legal ownership of the invention leads many skeptics to believe that he knew he didn’t actually invent anything new. 

There have been a lot of variations of the teabag, and some patents were filed under names like:

  • Tea Leaf Holder 
  • Tea Leaf Infuser 
  • Teabag System 
  • Tea Brewing Containment Device 

Big Corporations and the Modern Teabag 

So far, we’ve learned that Thomas Sullivan “invented” the teabag, and Mary McLaren and Roberta Lawson patented a similar invention. However, none of them are entirely responsible for the teabag we find in stores today. There are two major corporations who are credited with the invention of the modern teabag: Tetley and Lipton. 

Tetley’s Take on the Teabag

Tetley is the third-largest producer of tea in the world, and it was founded in 1837. The company was founded in England. Due to the large volume of tea they needed to produce in order to satisfy their ever-expanding consumer base, it’s no wonder that Tetley had a lot of skin in the game when it came to developing a cost-effective teabag. 

The founder of the company, Joseph Tetley, was actually sued in 1931 by Millie Patent Holding Co. for patent infringement. Apparently, Tetley violated three patents: two for the way his company manufactured teabags and one for a device that closed the teabags. So, though Tetley did not invent nor patent the modern filter-through teabag, they’re often credited as such. 

This is because they introduced the bag to their English consumer base in the early 1950s, and it was unlike anything they’d seen before. So, much like Thomas Sullivan himself, Tetley simply made their name in the teabag world by piggybacking off of similar mechanisms. 

What About Lipton?

Lipton is one of the most well-known brands, especially in the US. Though originally known for their own teas, Lipton has been bought by Pepsi Co. and has subsequently expanded, now owning brands like Brisk and Pure Leaf. 

Unlike Tetley, however, Lipton actually is the company that patented and “invented” the flow-through style teabag. The patent was granted in 1952. The reason they invented the bag is more complex than you may have originally thought. A flow-through teabag:

  • Is less expensive to make 
  • Leaves room for the leaves to open as they steep, providing a better, deeper flavor
  • Are made from unbleached hemp and completely compostable

The Takeaway: Who Invented the Tea Bag?

The world, in general, has a complicated relationship with tea, so it’s not a surprise that packaging it is just as complex. The teabag, just like every other invention, has a myriad of people and corporations that claim to have invented it and improved upon it.  Even if we knew for sure the inventor of the tea bag, it wouldn’t answer that age old question, “Loose leaf vs Tea Bags: Which is better?”!

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who invented the tea bag  graphic over a photo of a glass teacup with a tea bag being removed.

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