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In Simone Lazaroo’s new novel, Lost River: Four Albums, Ruth remembers unpacking donations during her childhood on an Aboriginal mission, including

…a box of used teabags some charitable parishoner sent every few months, their strings wound carefully around their middles to enable re-use, smelling of mildew. (88)

It’s a striking, slightly comic image, speaking to the meanness of church-people sending their cast-offs to missionaries. Of course, the idea didn’t originate with Lazaroo; it’s a well-known meme among evangelicals, a reasonably common joke to crack when making tea. But where does it come from? Were missionaries actually ever sent used tea bags? It has always struck me as a little unlikely, just a little too mean.

A search across the internet reveals the meme is prevalent, and usually vague – ‘I’ve heard it said that missionaries used to get sent used tea bags’ or ‘my parents told me…’ One missionary memoir writes:

On the mission field, we sometimes joked about the “used tea bags” sent to missionaries. None of us ever experienced that. It was true, however, that I liked my tea weak…
Mabel Tyrrell, A Missionary in the Making (Xulon Press: 2007) 115.

An article on tea bags on the BBC website comments that the meme

…is doubtful, considering this rumour started when the missionaries in question were largely in India and China where tea is produced and was being shipped back to the very people who were allegedly saving their teabags. This would have been a virtuous reason for re-using teabags.

Yet tea bags weren’t commercially available until 1904, so the meme has developed since then. The closest I can find to a first hand source for its truth is in a comment by Andrew Dowsett on fellow Perth blogger Andrew Hamilton’s  blog in 2007:

The stories are true. I know, because it happened to my parents (among others?). When they were missionaries in The Philippines in the 1970s, they couldn’t get decent tea. So they let it be known to friends back home in England that they couldn’t get tea, and that when people sent teabags in food parcels, it was such a treat that they would dry out used teabags and use them a second time…
…but they were perhaps less than impressed when, in response, someone sent them used-and-dried-out teabags, with a note expressing delight that their used teabags could be such a blessing. Which I don’t think they were.

The level of detail lends authenticity – but even here, it’s a second hand report. Yet further down is a comment from someone I personally know, Phil, who says he was sent used tea bags in Afghanistan (this in the last decade). It’s this comment which convinces me that it is a ‘true’ meme, at least  occasionally.

I’m interested in how such a meme has spread. It would be fascinating to trace it back to its earliest appearance in print. Perhaps it actually was a common practice and a search through old church newspapers of the 1920s or so would reveal pleas to send used tea bags to the mission fields. Perhaps it happened occasionally but spread orally because it epitomized a mindset so well. Or perhaps it began as a sermon illustration by one of the famous preachers of the early twentieth century and was picked up from there. (For anyone who has sat through many sermons, sermon illustrations are a fascinating genre of their own, delivered as if truth, but many of them concocted, lacking specifics,spiritual truth the central concern, not historical truth. Whole books of them are still produced today, complete with a space to note the date and congregation the preacher has used each story, lest they repeat themselves.)