A cup of mao jian

Mao Jian teaThe tea bag is an example of remarkable serendipity; an unexpected, simple invention that changed the world. But it was entirely unintended.

Tea, from the camelia sinenis tree, is the most popular beverage in the world after water, and the most popular hot beverage period. Before the tea bag appeared, barely over a century ago, all tea was sold loose. Today more than 90% is sold in bags (if you include tisanes, or herbal “teas” that figure is about 70%*). For what is arguably the most popular drink in the world, that’s quite a change in a few decades.

At the turn of the 20th century, New York tea and coffee merchant Thomas Sullivan was shipping samples of his product to customers in small silk bags. He expected them to pour the loose tea out before brewing it. But customers didn’t know that and instead plunked the bag into the pot with the tea inside. They quickly found it easier and more convenient than messing about with measuring and cleaning. Sullivan saw the opportunity, and worked on perfecting the design. By 1908 he was selling his bags.

A century before social media accelerated ideas and products, tea bags went viral.** Other American companies started selling hand-sewn fabric tea bags around the same time as Sullivan. In 1930 Salada brought out the first heat-sealed, paper fibre tea bags. The design – a thin flat pouch either round or square – didn’t change much until the 1980s when the pyramidal design was invented in Japan (although not widely used, the design is gaining popularity for whole-leaf teas through companies like Tea Pigs).

teabagWhile big in the USA, it wasn’t until the 1950s when the tea bag took off in Britain, in the post-war, post-rationing bloom of convenience and newness. In 1953, Tetley was the first British tea company to offer bags and the rest quickly followed. Even in the 1960s, tea bags represented only 3% of all tea sales. But by 2007 that was at 96%!

(The Brits have many tea habits that are well described here and you should read George Orwell’s essay on tea here)

Tea bags meant convenience: tea became easier to buy, store, and to shelve. Speciality store sales gave way to supermarkets. The image of tea as an elite drink was eroded by the democratic nature of the easy-to-use tea bag. ***

What changed in the tea world was not just the packaging. The bag changed the way consumers saw, evaluated and purchased tea – by brand as opposed to actual product. This meant marketing became an overriding factor in sales.

Tea leaf readers went out of business. Who reads tea bags? The whole art of tasseography has pretty much vanished. (okay losing some cons and carnies isn’t a great loss to society, but we also lost a useful literary trope and cliché…)

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