Once upon a time there was tea. If you wanted to make a cup of tea or a pot of tea you steeped the loose leaves in water and that was it. And so it went for many thousands of years. And while it seems likely that during those thousands of years someone came up with the notion of putting tea leaves in a bag or something like it and steeping them in that manner, credit for this groundbreaking discovery goes to one Thomas Sullivan.
As the story goes, in the early part of the twentieth century Sullivan, a tea merchant, took to distributing samples of his products in silk bags. Apparently someone decided that these could be steeped in hot water to make tea prep a little more convenient.
From here the next step was to less expensive paper tea bags that could be manufactured en masse, though the historical record is not completely clear on how and when this came about. We do know that in 1952 one of the next innovations in teabag technology was rolled out. It was a four-sided tea bag known as the flo-thru tea bag that came to us courtesy of tea giant Lipton.
Though this innovation allowed for more effective steeping, the truth is that over the years tea bags, for the most part, became more about convenience and less about quality, often containing tiny bits of dust and fannings from mediocre quality tea. In the last few decades this situation has been remedied somewhat by the appearance of more capacious pyramid and other type tea bags, which allow sufficient quantities of larger leaf teas to be used, resulting in a potentially good cup of tea.
For an example of this sort of thing, refer to Sac-It-To-Me with Tea Sack, an article published not long ago on this site. Or check out this article on the The Future Of The Tea Bag. Scientists have also developed a “tea bag” that will help with water purification in poor countries. Last, but not least, here’s a story about a tea bag fancier who’s gathered together 32,000 of the little things.