Simplest is often best. Less to figure out, less to maintain, less to break.
Take the tea strainer, for instance. All you really need is something that separates tea leaves from liquid. A fork or spoon will often do the job.
And the small spouts of Chinese clay teapots, the type of pot that predates western-style teapots, retain the leaves, making strainers superfluous.
However, in the 1600s, when Europeans were introduced to tea, they largely used the porcelain wine ewers (which had been packed with the tea, mainly to prevent breakage) as teapots. It wasn’t until 1639 that Europeans specifically requested teapots—although, even then, wine ewers and “teapots” were pretty much identical, as seen by this ca. 1690 wine ewer or teapot from China (Mueller 2005; photo with permission from S. M. Mueller).
We know that some Europeans did have clay teapots, as evidenced by this one dating to 1680 and embellished with gilded metal (photo with permission from S. M. Mueller), but that wasn’t what they were requesting. Porcelain, new to Europeans, was all the rage.
Decades later, in 1694, the British East India Company realized that the porcelain ewers didn’t make ideal teapots for western brewing methods, and decided that
teapots made for them in China must have “a grate . . . before the spout”. In other words, they wanted a sort of pierced barrier where the tea enters the spout so as to hold back the tea-leaves. (Hampshire Cultural Trust)
Thus, Chinese wine ewers, originally repurposed as western teapots, were redesigned to better function as teapots. Not only was a grate or web added to the spout, but eventually the lid was perforated to allow steam to escape (Mueller).
The problem was solved for teas made of largely intact leaves, which expanded during brewing. However, smaller bits of leaf could easily pass through the grate. And as the English turned to black tea produced in their own colonies in India, strainers better prevented the cut leaves from making their way into the teacup.
Strainers became a thing, serving a necessary purpose.
People soon realized, however, that a dripping strainer wasn’t kind to the tablecloth, so in the early 1900s, applicants for patents on strainers with drip pans stressed the importance of this improvement.
In 1903, Arthur Henry Leach pointed out that his drip pan:
- keeps the tablecloth clean
- allows the strainer to be set on the table
- can be inexpensive but if ornamented, “will form an attractive addition to the tableware”
- makes the strainer “well adapted for the use for which it is designed”
A few years later, in 1910, Nathaniel Barstow applied for a patent on a similar device, saying—with a great many words and obtuse phrasing—that:
My invention relates to tea and coffee strainers of all kinds and has for its objects the ends commonly sought in such devices; but, further and particularly, to prevent the accidental discharge from the drip cup of the drippings. Heretofore in devices of this character no provision whatever has been made for restraining, curbing, or controlling the drippings, with the result that the same after cooling were precipitated by a second or subsequent using, from the drip cup into the drinking cup; or were poured over the exterior of the latter, or upon the table.
Unfortunately for both Leach and Barstow, Roberta Lawson and Mary McLaren had earlier (in 1901) filed for a patent for their tea leaf holder—or teabag. We all know what trajectory that took, especially with the development of the CTC (cut/crush-tear-curl) process in the 1930s. The teabag worked well for these smaller pieces of leaves.
Yet, as many tea drinkers are finding today, loose tea is far superior to teabags—and so strainers remain necessary for many teas, and technological improvements make them easier than ever to use and clean.
Still, take a look at this little contraption dating to the early 1900s (the metal drip pan is stamped “PAT 2-13, 1913”). It’s really quite endearing.
The metal strainer swivels out when you rotate the wood handle, so it works equally well for left- and right-handed people.
However, because it’s quite small, it holds leaves for only around one cup—and then, only smaller leaves. I’d imagine that either a table was set with multiple strainers or the strainer was emptied after every cup or two.
It works perfectly well for its purpose, and although it may look a bit flimsy, it’s quite secure. This no-nonsense and unornamented strainer was probably marketed for those who couldn’t afford strainers made in sterling silver. And when it was new, it would have been a bright silver color.
And this little strainer would’ve contributed to the idea of tea being an experience, a time when you slowed down and paid attention to what you were doing. Plus it admirably kept the tablecloth free of stains.
–Mueller, S. M. “17th century Chinese export teapots: imagination and diversity,” Orientations 36(7). 2005.
–Hampshire Cultural Trust. “A brief history of the teapot,” website, accessed June 2017.