- Written by Doris Montag Doris Montag
Did you know?
- Chickens were originally raised strictly as a source for eggs and were eaten only on special occasions or when a laying hen stopped producing eggs.
- Egg production requires about 25 hours. Soon after an egg is laid, the process starts again. Depending upon the breed and conditions, a chicken will lay from 250 to 300 eggs per year.
- In development, the shell material is applied around the soft yolk and white and only hardens as it meets air when it is laid.
As Americans moved off farms and into cities some 100 years ago, our source of eggs shifted from the henhouse to the grocery store.
In the early 1900s, farm wives (typically) raised a chicken flock for their families’ egg use, selling the extra to grocers. Referred to as the “egg money,” it created a regular source of income to buy the items they could not produce on the farm. Some egg farmers had flocks as large as 400.
The eggs were collected in wicker or wire baskets, but these were neither stackable nor sturdy as the eggs bumpety-bumped aboard trains and carts into the cities. Transporting the fragile eggs to markets posed a special problem. In 1910, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report estimated that breakage and spoilage cost $45 million annually.
Soon inventors and tinkerers were competing for solutions to hold and carry whole eggs. Farmers took bulk eggs to town in egg crates using flats and individual separators. Women would bring eggs home from the grocer using their own homemade wooden egg boxes.
In 1911, British Columbian newspaper editor Joseph Coyle invented the egg box with the separation of eggs into individual snug compartments created with folded cardboard. The cardboard holder was hand glued into the container until 1919, when Coyle designed a machine to make the egg boxes.
In the ensuing 50 years, inventors filed dozens of patents for egg containers. In 1913, Popular Mechanics reported on the “Egg Crate for the Coat Pocket,” which targeted commuting businessmen bringing home eggs (along with the bacon). Two years later, the big innovation was the asbestos carton!
The egg carton was further developed by H.G. Bennett (U.K.) during the 1950s. His carton had a dimpled, cup-like bottom, each holding an individual egg. This design, still in use today, successfully protects eggs against stresses during transportation by absorbing shock.
Today, egg trays are used by processors. In some commercial operations, the eggs are cracked and transported to manufacturing sites as raw, liquid eggs.
Today’s egg carton can be made of various materials, including foamed plastics, such as polystyrene foam or clear plastic, and may be manufactured from recycled paper and molded pulp by means of a mechanized papier-mâché process.
Although most people are familiar with cartons holding a dozen eggs, there are various sizes, with some designed to hold two (yes, two), six, eight, 10, 15, 18, or 20 eggs.
More egg tidbits:
- The color of eggshell a chicken will lay can be determined by the color of the feathers on the chicken’s ear. (Did you know they had ears?)
- Different breeds produce varying shell colors, from the standard white shell to browns and blue-greens. Of note, there is no nutritional difference between brown, blue, or white-shelled eggs.
- Many Americans have shied away from eggs because of cholesterol fears — despite their taste, convenience, and nutritional value. According to current USDA nutrition data, eggs are lower in cholesterol than previously recorded, perhaps due to new feeding programs.
- More than 40 years of research has shown that healthy adults can enjoy an egg a day without increasing their risk for heart diseases, so enjoy a couple of deviled eggs today!
Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things, such as can openers, crochet, toy sewing machines, hand corn planters, powder compacts, egg cartons, and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.