Before the tea ball, tea strainers sifted leaves from the tea. Loose tea was brewed or steeped in a pot, then poured through a strainer into the cup. Often elegant in design, strainers either straddled the width of the cup or were smaller, delicate devices that collected the leaves in a more subtle way. Eventually, tea balls edged out the strainer in popularity.
The mid-19th century saw the widespread acceptance of the tea ball, which at that time was part aesthetic, part utensil. As most were made of ornate silver, these pieces were considered to be decorative essentials as much as they were workhorse gadgets. From simple cylindrical or spherical shapes to baskets, apples, canisters, gourds, and hearts, tea balls were typically two hinged or screwed parts that served as a colander, or strainer, for whole or partial tea leaves. Crafted by names like Tiffany, Gorham, Whiting, and International, as well as individual silversmiths, tea balls became an art form. Tea drinkers’ love affair with infusers was—and is—certainly rooted in the craftsmanship and the charm of the tea ball.