The History of Tea Bags From Invention Through Popularity (2023)

Having a cup of tea is one of those things that many people use to relax. Whether that's having it alone or in the company of other tea lovers, people enjoy their tea in different ways - from the brewing method down to the choice of flavor.

Many tea connoisseurs enjoy making their cups of tea using the traditional method of steeping tea leaves. Meanwhile, many others have fully taken on the way of the tea bag. After all, one of the reasons for its invention was to bring about convenience—the origin of tea dates centuries back. However, we can trace the history of the tea bag back over 100 years. This invention changed the tea brewing process and how people enjoy a single cup of tea.

What are Tea Bags?

Tea bags are small sealed bags, porous in nature, which hold either whole tea leaves or ground tea leaves. Manufacturers design these bags to aid immersion in water for steeping tea. This could be with the intention to make a cup of tea or a whole pot.

Many tea bags have a string attached to them to aid the brewing process. Producers also include a paper tag, which they attach to the end of the string, which carries the brand name.

While for the unfamiliar, tea bag producers will also often include brewing instructions on the package. In this article, we'll examine tea bag history, from a more convenient way to steep loose leaf tea, to huge popularity, through some dissent in more recent times due to plastic waste.

History of the Tea Bag

We can trace the history of the tea bag to the United States, over 100 years ago. There are two distinct accounts of the invention of the tea bag, with both starting in the 1900s. The first two names involved in the invention of the tea bags are Roberta Lawson and Mary Molaren. The third name, which is more widespread in terms of the history of tea bags, is Thomas Sullivan.

The Tea Leaf Holder Patent

Before tea bags became widely popular, two women from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had filed a patent in 1901. This was for a tea leaf holder. These women were Roberta C Lawson and Mary Molaren. They established a way for people to make a cup of tea without needing to include a teapot. They believed that the tea leaf holder would solve the waste problem by ensuring people use the required amount of leaves.

They also mentioned in their patent application that brewing large quantities of tea leaves often led to stale leaves. As a result, their goal was to create something that would ensure a convenient steeping process and freshly brewed tea. This meant skipping the then-regular process of tea brewing in a large teapot. Their invention was made of an open mesh woven fabric made of cotton thread. This stitched mesh fabric held the tea leaves.

How Was the Tea Bag Accidentally Invented?

The more popular account of the tea bag invention is that of a New York Tea Merchant, Thomas Sullivan. Although, by examining the historical accounts, we can see that Sullivan played more of a role in popularising tea bags.

In 1908, Thomas Sullivan began sending out tea samples to his customers. He filled silk pouches with tea and sent these samples out. The reason was that Thomas was looking for a less expensive and convenient way to send small samples of fine teas to his customers. Tin was popular then, but it was heavy and would contribute to shipping expenses. So eventually, he settled for small silken bags.

The following events led to him accidentally creating a version of tea bags. Back then, people used metal infusers for brewing. So, when the merchant sent the pouches, Sullivan's customers assumed they were meant to put the bags in boiling water. So, instead of removing the tea leaves, they simply put the silken bags filled with tea in water. The customers found this convenient, and the tea bag didn't necessarily affect the tea flavors.

Later on, people wanted something better because they realized that the silk mesh bag was too fine. Then, Sullivan established tea bags made from gauze to replace silk bags. This material became popular in the 1920s, and commercial production blew up. This especially became popular in the United States, and many other tea companies started imitating this. Producers of tea bags made two distinct sizes—a small one for cup use and a large one for teapots.

Purpose of Tea Bags

Regardless of the two accounts of the origin of the tea bag, it's clear that this invention served two primary purposes—the first being convenience and the second related to taste. Convenience-wise, tea bags made it easy for tea drinkers to quickly make a single cup of tea simply because each pouch contains the necessary leaf tea amount.

This innovation eliminated the need to make large quantities of tea. Also, it helped to reduce wasting tea leaves. Secondly, some people believed that tea would taste better when people removed the leaves from the drink after brewing.

The History of Tea Bags From Invention Through Popularity (1)

The Timeline of the Tea Bag Evolution

The tea bag has gone through various stages in history. Each of these stages has led to refinements of this invention. From how manufacturers produce it to various designs and packaging styles. Below are some of the highlights in the evolution of the tea bag:

The 1930s

Around this time, manufacturers were already producing different shapes and materials for tea bags. Some of the tea bag materials they were working with included gauze, which Sullivan popularised. Some others included cheesecloth and perforated paper. The most popular and celebrated became paper fiber bags out of all these. Initially, people made these tea bags through hand sewing. Afterward, the 30s brought about machine production.

A notable moment in this era is linked to William Hermanson, a founding member of Technical Papers Corporation. He invented and patented heat-sealed paper fiber bags. This significantly changed the way manufacturers produced tea bags.

The relevant Crush, Tear, Curl (CTC) method came about around 1931. William McKercher invented a technique that enabled machines to cut tea leaves into fine ground particles. This was a significant change from the method of twisting leaves. It also revolutionized the production of black tea. The CTC method made it easy for tea companies to fill the tea bags with granules. It also translated to a faster brewing time for people to enjoy their drinks. Today, we can see the CTC method in around 95% of black teas.

The 1940s

By the 1940s, in 1944 precisely, the Tetley tea brand revised the tea bag shape. Previously, manufacturers made tea bags in a sack-style pouch. However, Tetley Tea was the first company to create the square or rectangular shape of tea bags as we know them.

Eventually, the company started using a machine that allowed them to stitch more bags every minute, revolutionizing how we made tea bags. Their processes were also much faster than tea bags' initial hand sewing method.

At the same time, the growth in the commercial production of tea meant they could sell more products in response to the constantly growing demand for tea bags. This was primarily due to the convenience and waste prevention qualities that came with tea bags.

The 1950s

There was another innovation within the tea bag industry to come as time went on. The Lipton Tea Company in 1952 created a flow-thru bag. They created this four-sided bag with the intention of people using mugs to brew. As the name suggests, the bag aided the water flow into the bag during steeping. The design also easily allowed the leaves to expand while in the bag. What did all of these lead to?

With the desired infusion time, the water could come in contact and flow through the tea leaves. This allowed tea lovers to enjoy the tea flavors better than designs that limited water contact with the tea. A shorter and faster infusion time produced stronger and richer tea tastes.

Regarding the tea tags, the Lipton company is often credited with being the first to use paper tags. The company used the tags to print instructions for brewing and added a little more convenience as people became accustomed to bobbing their tea bags in the cup.

The 1990s

In 1992, Tetley rose again to contribute to the evolution of the tea bag. The company launched the round tea bag during this period. Their marketing efforts led to popularising the round tea bag, which was a significant shape change.

These tea bags from Tetley were suitable for large tea mugs because they contained more tea. The classic square tea bags came with strings and paper tags. However, Tetley's round design got rid of these as they contributed to waste.

Another major invention during the 90s came from Brooke Bond. This is the parent company of PG Tips, a tea brand in the United Kingdom. In 1997, this company created the pyramid bags as we know them today. These tea bags had more room for the concealed teas to move around compared with the previous flat designs.

It was also better suited for teapots and big mugs because of the shape. This meant people could make more tea and produce their desired infusion. The pyramid design especially helped when making tea for more than one person.

Tea Bags Today

There are various types of tea bags these days. Due to sustainable and eco-friendly reasons, the market is filled with reusable tea bags that you can buy. The world is also seeing a rise in specialty tea, which is a premium version of loose-leaf tea from single tea gardens.

Apart from this, companies produce tea in different pouches. They use materials like cotton muslin, filter paper, or food-grade plastic. Also, some brands manufacture silk bags as a premium or high-end version. For packaging, various options are available such as tins, single-use packets, and general packets.

Cotton strings are a popular addition to tea bags today. They serve the purpose of making steeping easier and also enable easy removal after steeping. Another recurrent theme is paper tags. Paper tags are popular because they reflect the brand name and identity. However, some round bags like those Tetley popularised don't have tags or strings.

Although brands have implemented major changes over the years, some still embrace specific processes. For instance, Lipton's essential bag has not changed much over the years. This also includes the amount of tea contained in each bag.

The tea bag has gone through several stages and processes since its inception. Many people praise it for its ease of use. However, there are still many others that have refused to accept this invention fully.

Meanwhile, a new crop of organic and sustainable tea brands points the way toward more ethical production better for the environment.

The Rejection of the Tea Bag

The History of Tea Bags From Invention Through Popularity (2)

The way the American population received tea bags was drastically different from the British population. Americans welcomed this innovation with open arms, while the British didn't immediately warm up to it. Also, many tea connoisseurs struggled, and some still do, with accepting this way of making the drink. Some of the reasons for this rejection include:

  • Tea bags limit the space for the leaves to move freely. This translates to losing some of the flavors and not benefiting from all the nutrients. These experts believe that the bags limit the experience of enjoying high-quality tea.
  • The experts believe that the granules of tea bags can't be compared to whole-leaf tea. The CTC method, for instance, brought about tea granules. This made it easy to fit them in the bags. However, loose tea allows the flavors and benefits of the tea to release into the liquid thoroughly.

Tetley played a role in making tea bags popular in the United Kingdom. This was a great success, and over the years, Britons have embraced these bags. A survey conducted in 2020 revealed that Britons use 61 billion tea bags every year.

Furthermore, as more people become concerned with our global plastic waste problem, there's a move away from tea bags that contain plastic. However, many mass-produced bags do include a thin layer of plastic to aid their strength when wet.

You can read more about plastic in tea bags: Plastic Tea Bags - Does Yours Contain Plastic?


The evolution of tea bags has come a long way over the years. Today, they continue to serve their purpose of offering a convenient way to have tea. They come in various sizes, shapes, and materials. Beyond drinking, people also use tea bags for dark eye circles, absorbing odors, and soothe sunburns.

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The History of Tea Bags From Invention Through Popularity (3)


Why did tea bags become popular? ›

No matter who got to it first, the invention solved two problems at once: how to make single serving tea-brewing more convenient, and how to reduce cleanup—throwing out a teabag is much easier than cleaning loose leaves out of a pot.

What is the history of teabags? ›

The first modern tea bags were hand-sewn fabric bags. Appearing commercially around 1904, tea bags were successfully marketed in about 1908 by Thomas Sullivan, a tea and coffee importer from New York, who shipped his silk tea bags around the world.

When did tea bags become popular? ›

The 1950s were a time when all manner of household gadgets were being promoted as eliminating tedious household chores, and in keeping with this tea bags gained popularity on the grounds that they removed the need to empty out the used tea leaves from the tea pot.

How was the tea bag accidentally invented? ›

However, tea bags were popularized in 1908 as a happy accident. Thomas Sullivan, a New York tea merchant, sent samples of tea to his customers in small silken bags. Some recipients mistakenly placed the silken bags directly into a teapot instead of emptying out the contents.

What is a fact about tea bags? ›

Interesting Facts About Tea Bags

Thomas Sullivan's original intention of creating tea bags was to ship tea out in tiny envelopes as samples. Placing warm tea bags on each eye can help reduce puffiness and dark circles. Tea bags can be used to get rid of the grease left on the pans after cooking.

Why tea is so popular? ›

3 - Calm Focus. L-Theanine is an amino acid that's found naturally in tea. There are many health benefits associated with this amino acid and others found in tea leaves, however it's the calming properties of L-Theanine that make drinking tea all the more popular.

What is the history of tea invention? ›

The story of tea begins in China. According to legend, in 2737 BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water, when some leaves from the tree blew into the water. Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the infusion that his servant had accidentally created.

How did tea bags impact the world? ›

Purpose of Tea Bags

This innovation eliminated the need to make large quantities of tea. Also, it helped to reduce wasting tea leaves. Secondly, some people believed that tea would taste better when people removed the leaves from the drink after brewing.

What did they use before tea bags? ›

Most of the tea in the United States is consumed using an invention that's a little overone hundred years old: the tea bag. Before the tea bag, a whole pot of tea had to be made by pouring hot water over leaves in a tea strainer.

Who invented the first tea bag? ›

Tea mythology claims that the teabag was invented by New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan in 1904 when he sent out samples packed in small silk pouches.

What were the first tea bags? ›

The earlier tea bags were made entirely of porous cloth with its loose end tied on a string. The square paper bags were introduced in the 1940s. The earlier bags used to be porous silk cloth. The paper bag is made from the processed mixture of wood and vegetable fibers.

What was the original purpose of tea bags in Western world? ›

The American tea trader Thomas Sullivan packed the tea samples he sent to Europe in 1904 into small silk bags so that they would not get muddled up. The recipients mistakenly placed the tea, together with its packaging, into boiling water – and the tea bag was invented.

Was tea bag a accidental invention? ›

Brewing tea using these bags became very popular among his customers. This invention was accidental. His customers were not supposed to put the bags in the hot water, but to remove the leaves first.

Why should you not squeeze a tea bag? ›

Bitterness. The liquid that remains trapped inside the tea bag has even higher instances of tannic acid than what is able to steep out of the bag on it's own. By squeezing the tea bag, you inadvertently release these tannic acids into your tea and in turn create a far more bitter, sour and acidic cup of tea.

How long did tea bags last? ›

Most tea bags come with an expiration date, which is usually two years from the production date. However, this doesn't mean that the tea will become unsafe to consume after this date. The expiration date mainly indicates the time until which the tea will retain its flavor and aroma.

Why was tea so popular in the 1700s? ›

In the early 1700's, tea was more expensive due to its scarceness, and social tea drinking was a luxury of upper class colonists. However, by the mid 1700's, the East India Company increased the supply of tea to the colonies, decreasing the prices, which allowed more and more people to routinely drink tea.

How was tea drank before tea bags? ›

Most of the tea in the United States is consumed using an invention that's a little overone hundred years old: the tea bag. Before the tea bag, a whole pot of tea had to be made by pouring hot water over leaves in a tea strainer.

Why is tea so popular around the world? ›

Tea is a common drink across the globe. It's a hydrating beverage with a range of different types and flavours. Tea is an important beverage in many different cultures. With next to no calories, tea is a great addition to a low-calorie diet.

Why are tea bags better than loose tea? ›

One of the main draws of using tea bags over loose leaf tea is that they're easier to prepare. If you're making a cup of tea using a tea bag, all you really need is some hot water and a mug or cup.

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