When Were Teabags Invented? [It’s Not When Most Sites Say It Was]

When were tea bags invented?

If you’re looking up when were tea bags invented, you’ll come across a lot of different answers.

Considering that tea has been enjoyed for countless years all around the world, it might be a surprise to learn that the tea bag as we know it is only about 100 years old, and even much newer in its current form. None the less, different variations have been used for much, much longer than that.

We decided to dig a little deeper to see if there is more to the story, and who else might be able to lay claim the invention of teabags, beyond the usual suspects.

Let’s start with a quick timeline surrounding when teabags were invented:

image via unilever
  • 8th Century China:The first mention we could find of anything remotely resembling a tea bag.
  • 1903: A patent was granted to Roberta C Lawson and Mary Mclaren for something described as “Packages adapted to allow liquid to pass through the contents” Here’s more information. They filed for it in 1901, which is another date you’ll often see associated with this invention of the tea bag.
  • 1908: This is when Thomas Sullivan originally shipped out silk bags of tea, more info below…
  • 1929:Adolf Rambold invented the first tea bag making machine for a German company called Teekanne.
  • 1930: William Hermanson invented the heat-sealed tea bag.
  • 1944: According to Beverly Dubrin’s book Tea Culture, this is the year that rectangular tea bags were invented.
  • 1953: Tetley introduces tea bags to the UK population.
  • 1989: Tetley launches their round tea bag.

Here’s an in-depth article from Gizmodo about the invention of the tea bag, and how it pre-dates Mr. Sullivan’s invention by a few years. Many sites, including Tetley’s Tea Academy and Clipper, attribute it to him, however this patent says otherwise.

In the Western world tea bags first appeared commercially in the early 1900s, including those of Thomas Sullivan based out of New York. However, that doesn’t mean that Thomas Sullivan’s teabags were the first ones to ever exist.

Perhaps the patent was granted in the early 1900’s, but the women who owned it never ended up producing the bags? It’s unclear why Thomas is widely credited with inventing the tea bag, when there is an official document from years prior that suggests otherwise.

Prior to the early 1900s when Thomas Sullivan started selling teabags, or when Roberta C Lawson and Mary Mclaren patented them, tea had been packaged into bags as early as the eighth century in China, in the Tang Dynasty. They would fold up paper and then sew it together, so perhaps the debate about who invented it in the early 1900’s is a moot point.

The Most Popular Story of Tea Bag Origins

Thomas Sullivan

Thomas Sullivan would send out samples of his teas in small silk bags and his customers would dunk the entire bag in boiled water, not realizing that they were supposed to take the loose leaf tea out of the bag.

Prior to this, people were used to using a variety of metal tea infusers and they just assumed that the silk bags Thomas was using were supposed to work the same way.

His customers were complaining that the mash was to fine, and after Thomas realize that his customers were putting the entire silk bag into water he had the idea to make teabags.

The Invention of Heat Sealed Tea Bags

While teabags had already been used for dozens, or hundreds of years, depending on where you were in the world, it wasn’t until the 1930s that heat seal teabags, the most common kind to see today, started gaining mainstream popularity.

An industrialist in Boston by the name of William Hermanson filed the patent to use heat sealing on paper tea bags, which allowed them to be mass produced much more quickly than the traditional method of sealing them. This also introduced the use of thermoplastics to seal the tea in the bags, which some tea drinkers try to actively avoid, preferring a cleaner and more old-fashioned method for tea tags that are biodegradable.

Today, many companies offer completely biodegradable and organic teabags made from natural fibers, without any plastic in them. These tend to be more expensive, and usually signify a higher grade of tea. The common types of teabags that you’ll find at the grocery store usually use the heat ceiling method, and are mass produced very cheaply, which allows them to be inexpensive but also not ideal for compost or people who want to leave a smaller footprint on the environment.

Further Reading:

Along with the aforementioned Gizmodo article, Nicole at Tea For Me Please has done an excellent write-up on this same topic, which includes a comment from a great grandchild of a tea  importer/exporter from New York, that is very interesting to see, so make sure you check that out!