It sounds a little like an hors d’oeuvre or an exotic delicacy, but a tea ball is just another name for a tea infuser. Tea balls made out of sterling silver were very popular at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. There was a huge variety of shapes and sizes of infusers manufactured during this time. They were made by well-known makers like Gorham and Tiffany as well as by individual silversmiths. When the smaller firms could not keep up with the larger firms in terms of their infusers’ weight or quality, they would compete with the larger firms by designing playful shapes to appeal to customers. As a result there are many delightful designs found in tea balls from this time.
The age of tea balls came to an end somewhat accidentally in 1908 when a New York tea merchant serendipitously invented the tea bag. When sending tea samples out to his customers, he put the tea in tiny silk bags as a tidy way to send his tea samples. His delighted customers were the first to use the disposable tea bags, and this led to a dramatic decline in the use of the cumbersome tea ball.
There are still infusers being made today, and they are generally made from cheaper materials than sterling. Stainless steel and porcelain are popular, modern options for today’s infusers, and they are generally used for infusing herbs or spices. So as you can imagine the tea balls that were popular a hundred years ago have become quite collectors’ items today.
And for those who delight in an old fashioned cup of tea, even if you cannot afford an antique tea ball, the newer offerings are generally quite affordable. They come with stands and handles in all manner of designs. So you can choose a little whimsy or purely function when you brew your tea the old fashioned way.