Despite their beauty and historical significance, however, the oldest tea balls didn’t consistently capture the leaves, resulting in pieces floating along the surface of the tea. The upgrade in many of today’s tea balls is a mesh body, which allows free flow of water but no flow of tea leaves.
In the early 20th century, tea balls began to lose their standing to disposable tea bags. When William Sullivan, a New York tea merchant, packaged loose tea leaves as samples in small sachet bags back in 1908, recipients didn’t know what to do with the miniature muslin bags, so they poured water over them, effectively steeping the tea leaves. The disposable tea bag was born.
Sullivan had unwittingly changed the course of tea steeping, essentially pushing aside the old-fashioned ball-and-chain infuser as the standard method for preparing tea. After all, the tea bag reduced cleanup, and it traveled well.