There is a commonly accepted tale for the origin of the tea bag, one that I’ve written about at this site and elsewhere. I’ve also seen it mentioned countless other times in many other places. I’ll kick off this article by giving a very brief version of the story. Sometime around 1904 or 1907 or perhaps even 1908, depending on who’s telling the tale, a tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan got the idea to give out samples of his wares in silk bags. Some of his customers got the notion to dip these bags in hot water and thus the humble tea bag was born – for better or worse.

Tea Leaf Holder patent diagram (Photo source: screen capture from site)

Tea Leaf Holder patent diagram (Photo source: screen capture from site)

The more I thought about it and dug around a bit, trying to find out more about Sullivan and his “invention,” the more it occurred to me that this seemed like another one of those quaint myths that seem to have sprung up about tea. Which is not to say that I’m totally discounting it or that I’ve even done nearly enough research to make such an assertion. Just call it a hunch.

Even if you allow that Thomas Sullivan did invent the tea bag, then it seems that he never saw fit to patent it, though several other patents actually credit him with devising it. If we do allow as much and go with of the commonly cited dates listed above, it doesn’t take into consideration the achievements of Wisconsonites Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren, who, in 1901, filed for a patent that was awarded two years later for something called a Tea-Leaf Holder. I don’t claim any expertise on this subject and patent documents can be a bit tricky to decipher, but for my money this gadget appears to be a good old-fashioned tea bag.

But what about A.V. Smith? Well, what about him? If you go looking for the originator of the tea bag you’ll find several references to someone by that name. He/she was said to be from England and was said to have received the first patent for a tea bag in 1896. Which sounds like pretty exciting stuff but unfortunately patent office records do not support the claim.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here, including more on tea bags.

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