First teabags
Thomas Fitzgerald
/ first
United States (Boston)

Legend holds that New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan invented the teabag in 1908, but in reality there were earlier prototypes. The July 1836 edition of the Preston Temperance Advocate makes reference to the use of a bag to make tea, and a precursor to the modern teabag can by found in Bostonian Thomas Fitzgerald’s (USA) 1880 patent (filed 13 March, granted 16 November) for a long-handled muslin or cloth bag to contain tea or coffee that was secured to a removable float. Improvements on Fitzgerald’s design included fellow American Edward Dillingham’s “Tea-Strainer,” patented in 1893, and the “Tea Leaf Holder” patented in 1903 by Roberta C Lawson and Mary McLaren of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The story of Thomas Sullivan’s invention of the teabag took root partly because it is so appealing: in 1908, Sullivan shipped prospective customers tea samples in small silk pouches. Not realizing that the bags were merely packaging, his customers put them directly in hot water to infuse single cups of tea. Pleased with the results, they requested more, and the teabag was supposedly born. Sullivan was good at marketing, and he gained a measure of fame. However, teabags weren’t mass-produced until World War I. These early bags were made of cotton gauze, which is less fine than silk and better for infusing, and they were tied with string.

Over the following decades, teabags were refined, most notably by the American chemist Fay H Osborne, who in 1934 took out patents for making inexpensive porous, long-fibre paper; and by the German inventor Adolf Rambold, who used Osborne’s paper to create both the combination teabag and paper wrapper (patented in 1935) and the double-chamber tea bag, patented in 1952, which allowed for better infusion and is still in use today.