Fun Collectibles-Infusers: A Tea Time Necessity

May 11, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Diana Bulls, Food Fun, Hometown History

by Diana Bulls

Tea time and Mother’s Day seem to go together, so I immediately thought about the simple tea infuser. Once nearly extinct, but now making a comeback, this lowly little item was a necessity for brewing the perfect cup of tea. Infusers were around for a long time before the invention of tea bags. Sometimes called a tea ball or tea egg, by the time of Queen Victoria, no respectable British household would be without one of these, but before we get in to the nitty-gritty of tea infusing, we need a little history lesson on tea itself.

Spoon infuser with red plastic handle (c. 1970); novelty teapot and house infusers with drip saucers (c. 1980s).

A Brief History of Tea

Tea is a quintessentially British drink–they have been drinking it for over 350 years, but tea’s story actually begins in China. According to the United Kingdom Tea Council, Chinese legend says that in 2737 BC, the emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a Camellia Sinensis tree while his servant boiled drinking water. Some leaves from the tree blew into the water, and Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the servant’s accidental infusion–the first cup of tea.

Whether the legend is true or not makes no difference really, as we know that the Chinese have been drinking tea for centuries–tea containers have been found dating to as early as 206 BC. In the late 8th century, tea was introduced to Japan by Buddhist monks who had travelled to China to study. Tea drinking then became a part of Japanese culture and eventually developed into a ritual tea ceremony.

Europeans didn’t begin drinking tea until the latter half of the 16th century, and then they were mostly Portuguese traders and missionaries. The Dutch were the first to begin shipping tea as a commercial import. Tea soon became a fashionable drink among the Dutch, and from there the habit spread to other countries in continental Western Europe, but because of its high price it remained a drink for the wealthy.

It took the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza (a Portuguese princess) to establish tea drinking in Britain. The East India Company began to import tea into Britain and it became a popular drink in coffee houses, which were centers for the transaction of business. Women drank tea at home.

Tea was still very expensive, so it was reserved for the upper and middle classes. This was in part due to taxation introduced in 1689–remember the Boston Tea Party? The taxation of tea was finally abolished in 1964. Yes, that is 1964.

Okay, So What Exactly Is a Tea Infuser?

A tea infuser is a container which holds tea leaves. It is placed in a tea cup or pot, allowing the tea to brew without the loose tea leaves floating about. The infuser has a chain or a rod attached so it can be easily removed once the tea is properly brewed.

A spoon infuser from Germany and two American tea balls; all c. 1940-1950. The acorn-shaped infuser is made of aluminum.

Old infusers were usually shaped as tea balls or tea spoons. Tea balls are made of metal with small holes and have a chain attached, whereas tea spoons look are a covered spoon, with holes in the cover. Many Victorian tea balls and spoons are made out of sterling silver. In addition to the ball shape, you can find teapots and animals. Newer infusers are made of mesh, metal, nylon and silicon. They hang, float and stir.

History of the Tea Infuser

Evidently the Chinese didn’t see the need for infusers, as they used small clay pots, putting in the loose leaves and pouring boiling water over them. The leaves just swelled in size, filling up a lot of the pot and the Chinese developed “tea accessories” which were used to fish out the leaves.

The British were a bit more particular about loose leaves in their tea. By the 19th century, they were using silver infusers and tea strainers. The strainer was held over the tea cup and the tea was poured through it and into the cup, but their popularity was short lived.

A sterling silver tea strainer (pat. Mar 1910) and sterling teapot-shaped infuser (c. 1890). The strainer basket swivels over the saucer, which catches any drips.

The tea ball was the accepted method of brewing tea by the mid-19th century. They were made in all shapes and crafted by well-known silversmiths, making them an art form. Unfortunately they still didn’t catch all the tea leaves, hence the use of mesh in today’s infusers. But before mesh, there was the accidental invention of the tea bag!

Two new mesh-style infusers; one with a squeeze handle and one with a dipping chain (c. 2000s).

Sometime around 1908, a New York tea merchant named Thomas Sullivan began packing sample teas in small silk bags. The tea was supposed to be removed from the bags, but his customers assumed the bags were to be used like infusers. Sullivan began making the bags of gauze and by the 1920s, they were made of paper.

According to the UK Tea Council, the British did not immediately accept this radical change in making tea. In the early 1960s, tea bags made up less than 3% of the British market, but by 2007 they had reached an astounding 96%, and now there isn’t a home or workplace that doesn’t have a stash of tea bags.

Alas, the poor tea infuser was out of style, and nearly extinct, and that brings me back to the beginning of my article.

There has been recent interest in brewing loose leaf teas, especially green tea and other Oriental blends. While tea infusers were out of style for many years, they are now making a comeback, especially since people are starting to brew more full leaf teas which are not readily available in teabags. The leaves are dried and compressed, and when they meet water they rapidly expand to full size. Wulong and green tea leaves are quite a bit larger than black tea leaves, so they clog up teapots. Voila! Place the tea inside an infuser, brew to your taste and you don’t have to deal with the mess!

How To Use Tea Infusers

• Infuse regular teas not less than 3 minutes and not more than 5. Herbal teas may take longer to infuse–experiment. If tea infuses too long, it will taste bitter.
• Fill infusers up to half their capacity, this allows the leaves to expand and release their essential oils.
• For hotter tea, rinse the cup or tea pot with hot water (from kettle or spigot) before use.

You can still be lucky enough to find silver (usually sterling) tea balls at antique shops or flea markets, and in fact, your grandmother may have one tucked away in a drawer or silver chest. Quite often they are teapot or acorn shaped. It is also fairly easy to find aluminum tea balls of various sizes in thrift stores or yard sales–a lot of people have no idea what they were used for. New tea infusers can be found at Asian markets, stores like Cost Plus or Williams Sonoma.

It doesn’t matter if you collect old or new, or just purchase one. Put it to use and see if it doesn’t help you brew that perfect cup of tea.

Call for Collectors

Do you have a special collection, kitchen or otherwise, that you would like to share with our readers? Contact me via Kings River Life. Let’s spread the joy of collecting around.

Diana Bulls is an ongoing contributor to our
Hometown History section, having collected vintage kitchen utensils for over 40 years; she is also actively involved with the Reedley Historical Society.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this post. I’m currently researching the differences between a tea pot and a tea kettle and would like to get the insights of experts. Between a tea pot and kettle, which one would you choose? Why do you choose one above the other? Thanks so much.


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