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Tasteless And Full Of Holes

Fall 1995 | Volume 11 |  Issue 2

MODERN TEA DRINKERS owe a debt of gratitude to Faye Osborne, for he is the father of the tea bag. He spent decades developing a paper with no taste that would be porous without falling apart. Osborne began his work in the 1920s, but tea bags were around long before then. As early as 1904 a salesman named Thomas Sullivan packed samples of loose tea in handsewn silk bags. He meant them simply as a sales gimmick, but some customers started using them for brewing. The advantage was obvious: no more leaves to fuss with. There were also numerous disadvantages; for one, the tea tasted funny.


Still, the idea was promising. Besides being convenient for the consumer, bag brewing would allow packers to use tiny or broken tea leaves, which had formerly been shunned. The search for a better material began. Cheesecloth was tried in the 1910s, but it was not porous enough. Cotton gauze worked better but was expensive and hard to stitch and tasted like laundry. Despite these problems, balls, bags, and pouches for tea were using eight million yards of gauze a year by the 1930s.

Osborne, a research engineer with C. H. Dexter & Sons (now the Dexter Corporation) of Windsor Locks, Connecticut, a paper company, thought that paper with the right properties could be better and cheaper than gauze. His interest was piqued when he saw some cigars wrapped in an unusually soft, strong, flexible tissue, which was handmade in Japan from a native fiber. He knew it would make good tea bags, but it was too expensive to manufacture in the United States. In 1926 Osborne set out to duplicate the Japanese material. He tried wood, jute, palm, sisal, cotton, pineapple—practically every fiber known to the industry. All had one shortcoming or another. Finally he came upon wild abaca fiber, also known as manila hemp, which is used for making rope. It showed promise.

Between 1929 and 1931 Osborne tried several chemical cooks to dissolve the bonds between individual fibers (to make the material more porous) without weakening the total fiber package. Once he found the right combination, he had to scale up from single sheets to machines that could make a continuous roll. That took several more years. By the winter of 1934 he was ready for limited runs of the paper, using a mixture of manila hemp and wood pulp.

Osborne encountered the usual obstacles along the way. His process used a hundred times more water than normal, and the plant’s filter system was so inefficient that small fish would occasionally come up on the wire screen along with the fibers. Workers often had to shut off the machine, pick dirt, leaves, paper scraps, and other trash off the screen by hand, scour it with acid, and steam it with a high-pressure hose. But despite these difficulties, the process worked. By 1935 Dexter was producing large amounts of Osborne’s long-fiber paper using 100 percent manila hemp. The new and unique product (which was also used for wrapping silverware, winding electrical parts, and packing meat, among other uses) was largely responsible for saving Dexter from bankruptcy. By the late 1930s tea bags made with paper from Dexter and other companies were competing with gauze, though they still imparted a flavor and were not porous enough.

When World War II started, Dexter could no longer buy hemp or even use its inventory, which was appropriated for military uses. Osborne turned to a substitute made of rayon and old rope from which the oil had been extracted. Meanwhile he continued his research. In 1942 he came up with a new gossamer-thin paper. In 1944 he found a way to heat-seal the bags, eliminating the need for stitching. These two advances combined to make tea bags commonplace in American pantries. By war’s end around 30 percent of the tea in America was sold in bags, more than double the pre-war figure. (Today’s rate is 95 percent, not counting instant or pre-brewed tea.) A further step came in 1947, when Osborne started coating tea bags in melamine resin to increase their wet strength.

Osborne continued working on tea-bag paper until his retirement in 1970. The time he spent was well worth the effort to him—and to the millions of tea drinkers who unknowingly salute him every time they sip a cup of their favorite beverage.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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