Design moment: Tea bag, 1901

Two Milwaukee women filed for a patent for a ‘tea leaf holder’ – a mesh bag to hold tea leaves for a single cup of tea

In 1930, William Hermanson patented the heat-sealed paper fibre tea bag, marketed in earnest in the 1950s when Joseph Tetley and Co began to mass-produce tea bags. Photograph: iStock

In 1930, William Hermanson patented the heat-sealed paper fibre tea bag, marketed in earnest in the 1950s when Joseph Tetley and Co began to mass-produce tea bags. Photograph: iStock

 

Ireland came late to the widespread use of tea bags; holding firm to loose tea leaves for a superior brew. Not so in the US, where tea bags were enthusiastically adopted almost from their invention, though that date is difficult to pin down.

In 1901, two friends living in Milwaukee, Roberta Lawson and Mary Molaren, filed for a patent for a “tea leaf holder” – a mesh bag to hold tea leaves for a single cup of tea.

Nothing much seems to have happened though until 1908 when New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan – who surely had Irish roots – began shipping samples of his product to potential buyers in small silk pouches. He didn’t intend the buyers to dip them into hot water. But they did,  and the convenient method of making tea took hold when he switched to cheaper mesh bags. 

The next major breakthrough was in 1930 when William Hermanson patented the heat-sealed paper fibre tea bag, marketed in earnest in the 1950s when Joseph Tetley and Co began to mass-produce tea bags.

There will have to be another rethink on tea bag design now that we know so much about the dangers of single-use plastic, as most tea bags are sealed with polypropylene, a plastic to stop them falling apart.