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Before Tea Bags, Sterling Silver Tea Strainers

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When New York tea merchant William Sullivan put his tea samples in silk bags and sent them to his customers around 1908, he unwittingly invented the disposable tea bag, leading to the sharp decline in popularity of the sterling silver tea strainers. Today antique sterling silver tea strainers from England and Ireland in all shapes and sizes are once again highly collectible and can command high prices for rare designs.

Before the 1880s all teapots came with integral strainers that were sufficient to strain the larger leaf tea that was in use. But with the advent of finer leafed tea an extra strainer was required. The sterling tea strainer was invented as a small table utensil for straining the tea leaves from brewed tea while pouring from a teapot into a teacup. Tea strainers and infusers (tea balls) were most popular around the 1890-1910 timeframe.

The varieties in shapes and sizes of the strainers and infusers made by manufacturers and individual silversmiths during that time are extensive. Many times when smaller firms could not compete with the well-known larger makers like Tiffany or Gorham in the quality or weight, they would make lighter weight, less sturdy strainers and infusers, relying on fanciful shapes to attract buyers.

Antique sterling silver tea strainers all have the same basic design ~ a central shallow bowl that was pierced in a pattern to allow the fluid to flow through. Single and two-handled versions were designed to rest on the rim of a teacup. Many were made with matching bowls to rest the used strainer on and catch drips. Many of the handles were also pierced.

The most sought after tea strainers have their original bowls and so must have matching hallmarks. "The piercing should be in good condition with no pieces missing and no cracks," explains Serendipity Antiques dealer and sterling silver collector Erika Contreras. "Unusual designs from the Arts and Crafts or Art Deco periods command high prices."

There are still some tea strainers and infusers being made today, but most are made of cheaper materials such as stainless steel and porcelain with many of those mainly used for infusing spices or herbs. That reason alone is enough to make us treasure the craftsmanship and variety of the early tea strainers and infusers. And there are still those who enjoy a more leisurely and old-fashioned way of making tea; we lift our teacups to them!

Article courtesy of Cheryl Johannes, owner of Casual Cottage Chic (www.casualcottagechic.com)









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