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Friday, April 6, 2012

History Notes: A Vintage Tradition -- The Easter Egg

Traditionally, in some parts of Europe, eggs that went into Easter foods weren’t broken open, but gently punctured so the egg emptied out without destroying the shell. The hollow eggs were then decorated with plant-based dyes and strung on to tree branches. The art of decorating Easter eggs became increasingly popular during the Edwardian era, almost to the point of becoming a “fine art.”

For the traditional Easter egg, the coloring was obtained from inexpensive dyes, or cheap ribbon, which was boiled in a little water and the egg submerged into the bowl until the desired color was obtained. Calico eggs were very popular, and to make them, you would wrap each egg in a piece of chintz, and the pattern would adhere to the egg shell while boiling. Other sources for color included the red skins of onions for rose, logwood dye for blue, Spinach water for green, and onion juice water for a golden yellow. For painted eggs for place cards or caricatures, the boiled egg was washed in powdered pumice to remove the gloss of the shell, then the egg yolk was blown out of the shell through small holes pricked at both ends. After the yolk was gently blown out of the egg, it was rinsed with warm water and dried carefully. The decoration was drawn with a hard pencil and then quickly painted over with watercolors. If the egg was intended to hold a dainty treat, a hole was made on one end, the treat dropped in, and the shell pasted with thin paper. ~ Easter Eggs, Edwardian Promenade

Decorated eggs went above and beyond ribbons and dye, however. The first Fabergé egg was crafted for Tsar Alexander III as gift for his wife, Empress Maria Fedorovna, in 1885. At two and a half inches, it was made of gold and coated with white enamel to resemble egg shell. It was banded in gold, and revealed, when opened, a gold hen with ruby eyes. The hen then opened to reveal a replica of the imperial crown; which, when opened, offered a ruby pendant on a chain. From 1885 to 1917, the House of Fabergé in St. Petersburg produced these one-of-a-kind treasures. Fifty-two eggs were commissioned by the Tsar: eight have gone missing and one is unfinished. The remaining eggs are scattered around the world. Considered quite valuable now--in 1995, one egg went for $5.5 million at auction--in the 1950s, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art declined a bequeathment of Faberge eggs, stating they weren't interested in "Edwardian decorative Trivia."

In 1875, Cadbury introduced the first chocolate egg and by 1893, they offered more than 19 different products for Easter.

Egg rolling is a traditional game consisting of, literally, rolling hard-boiled eggs along the ground or down a hill, and traditions vary from country to country. An enduring and uniquely American tradition has been the White House Easter Egg Roll--which started not at the White House, but on the Capitol grounds. In 1876, enough damage had been caused to the grounds that Congress passed a law forbidding the use of Capitol grounds as a “children’s playground.” In 1877, rain prevented any temptation, but in 1878, local newspapers reminded youth of the law. Allegedly, then President Rutherford B. Hayes issued an official order that no child would be turned away who wanted to roll eggs at the White House after children petitioned him during his afternoon walk. Since then, the egg roll occurred on the White House’s South Lawn, relatively uninterrupted. From 1917-1920, the event was canceled, due to World War I, and again in 1943-1945 due to rationing during the Second World War. By now, the event is so popular there is a five day lottery for tickets to attend. (For a wonderful slide show of images from 133 years of White House Egg Rolls, visit the White House website and scroll down.)

Image Source: Vintage Easter Postcard; Easter Bunny Postcard, 1907, Faberge egg


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