The invention of the tea bag
Placed in Hot Water, Packaging and All

Samt Verpackung ins kochende Wasser Photo: © Verena Hütter

Verena Hütter explains how a mistake led to people all over the world hanging little bags in their water to make tea.

Verena Hütter

The way we make tea these days all comes down to a mistake. Be it Ceylon, orange pekoe, Darjeeling, or jasmine – tea releases its flavor in little bags. But why? Because of a mistake. The American tea trader Thomas Sullivan packed the tea samples he sent to Europe in 1904 into small silk bags so that they would not get muddled up. The recipients mistakenly placed the tea, together with its packaging, into boiling water – and the tea bag was invented.

However, a few more fascinating mistakes would be made before tea bags became what they are today. Sullivan packaged his tea in silk bags, which worked pretty well. But then, wily traders began to cut the expensive tea leaves with cheap hay. To put an end to this dishonest practice, a Brit named John Horniman glued his bags shut. This certainly sealed them, but then the tea tasted terribly of glue. Soon, the Düsseldorf company Teekanne arrived on the scene – the global leader in tea bags today. During the First World War, the firm manufactured tea bags made of gauze, a material that is so thick that no tea leaf in the world could release its flavor into hot water. So, the troops drank hot water.

Apropos hot water: if anyone is wondering who invented tea – it was Asterix and Obelix. Before the Gauls came over to visit the Britons, the latter drank nothing but hot water, occasionally with a drop of milk for flavor. When Asterix pepped up the drink with a handful of herbs, the Brits soon developed a taste for it. And they’ve been drinking tea ever since.

The tea bag as we know it today was finally invented by Adolf Rambold, an employee of the Teekanne company, in the year 1929, shortly before his namesake proved himself to be the most devastating mistake ever. Adolf Rambold created a dual-chamber bag made of parchment paper, sealed with a staple. And he invented a tea bag packing machine to boot.

Ever since, countless tea bags have been dropped into water every day all over the world – and occasionally flung at the ceiling. In the 1960s, Rudi Dutschke threw his tea bag at the ceiling of the Wilhelm Hoeck 1892 pub in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district. The bag remains stuck there to this day.  

The discipline of the vertical tea bag toss is an extremely popular form of artistic expression. A number of bags are also stuck to the ceiling of the Karlsruhe Academy of Fine Arts. As a student, I even chucked a few up there myself – though none of them stuck.

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