Image taken from page 153 of 'A Tea Planter's Life in Assam ... With ... illustrations by the author'

Image taken from: “A Tea Planter’s Life in Assam … With … illustrations by the author”, via The British Library

An article in the Guardian yesterday suggested that tea sales are down. A thorough reading suggests that the sales of black tea are down, and we’re branching out into other flavours rather than simply becoming a nation of coffee drinkers.

If you read down through the comments, there’s one that raises the idea that the tea bag was invented as a way of selling “scrap powder” from tea warehouses. It’s an idea I have heard mooted before, but the conventional history of the tea bag suggests it was invented as a convenient form of packaging, and then took hold as a method of steeping tea. Still, the idea that we’re all essentially drinking something that had to be swept off the floor appears to be an enduring one.

So… the latest quest is to see if we can find out if there’s any basis to that idea, or if we can find out when and why it arose*. Maybe you’re a tea history buff with an army of potentially helpful volumes on your shelves (and the odd hour to spend leafing through them over the festive period). Or perhaps you’re just happy to spend some time sifting through the internet for clues.

In either case, here are some links to start you off.

The United Kingdom Tea Council credit an American, Thomas Sullivan, with the invention of the tea bag, around 1908. He wanted an easier way to send out tea samples; his customers started making tea without removing the bag. It goes on to say that the Brits weren’t as keen on this method, particularly those who had been served a nasty cup of tea in America. Materials shortages during WWII also delayed the British adoption of the tea bag, but we’ve made up for lost time – by 2007 tea bags made up 96% of the British market.

They offer the following references that may be worth following up:

  • Denys Forrest, Tea for the British (London, 1973)
  • Roy Moxham, Tea, Addiction, Exploitation and Empire (London, 2003)
  • Jane Pettigrew, A Social History of Tea (London, 2001)

Wikipedia says that tea bag patents appeared as early as 1903. Again, there are some references at the bottom that made lead to new clues.

Tea Muse suggests that after the invention of the tea bag, people realised they got more flavour from smaller leaves, and merchants took that as an opportunity to sell lower grades of tea – “fannings” and “dust”, but gives no references.

Back to the UK Tea Council, and their humble tea bag article says that the use of “dust” as a technical term within the industry for smaller leaf particles led to the popular misconception that the tea was lower grade. Again, no references, and a body promoting the consumption of tea can hardly be considered to be unbiased.

So… are those of us who prefer to use tea bags to steep our favourite botanical beverage being bamboozled, or are the loose leafers being snobby? The quest is on! Leave your findings in the comments, or email me.


*I’m not looking to start a debate on the merits of tea bags v loose tea, I am just curious as to where this put-down started, and whether it has any basis in fact.