The history and art of the Easter egg


Pennsylvania German experts and Monroe County residents Earl and Ada Robacker
stand with their Easter egg tree in 1972. The Robackers made all of the eggs displayed.

Below, right: Distelfink scratch-carved egg from the Robacker collection.

By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association

Eggs have been a staple in the diets of humans since ancient times. Early civilizations not only survived on eggs as a food source, but they also regarded eggs as deep symbols of fertility, life, and a rebirth of the land after the cold winter months.

The word “Easter” comes from the name “Eostre” or “Ostara” which means “spring” or “movement towards the rising sun.” Eostra was the pagan goddess of fertility, and her name first appears among the Anglo-Saxon peoples of northern Europe in the 7th century. According to legend, Eostra always arrived in March or April and brought with her warmer weather and longer days – the vernal equinox. It is no surprise that this event coincides with Christianity and Christ’s resurrection.

Some eggs, however, were intended for decoration, not consumption. There seems to be no real reason for decorating eggs, and references of early egg-decorating traditions are almost non-existent. The earliest colored-egg reference can be found in the April 13, 1824 edition of the Lancaster Volksfreund. A portion of the newspaper article, which was printed in German, reads, “A general custom with us is that of presenting children at Easter gayly colored eggs.”

The process of egg decorating was common among local Pennsylvania Germans in the 1800s and involved much more effort than it does today. In the Pennsylvania Dutch regions, including areas in Monroe County, eggs were collected weeks before Easter to ensure there were plenty to be decorated, hidden, and then found by area children.

For eggs that would be dyed and consumed, they first had to be hard-boiled. Using the natural resources from their environment, Pennsylvania Germans used boiled-down, dried onion skins which would produce a deep, rich red-brown color. The onion skins also gave the hard cooked eggs a faint onion taste. Other natural resources were used to produce different colors. Alder catkins and hickory bark yielded a yellow color, madder root produced a soft red color, and coffee and walnut shells gave the eggs a brown color. Commercial dyes were unheard-of.

During the early egg decorating era, the Pennsylvania Germans developed unique methods to add designs to eggs. Some families would tightly wrap a piece of calico fabric around a raw egg. The cloth-wrapped eggs would be placed in boiling water, and once removed, that pattern of the cloth would be transferred to the egg. Children would often use a hard tallow candle to draw patterns or pictures or to write phrases on uncooked eggs.

After creating the desired image, the eggs would be boiled in the dye. The dye would not penetrate the wax, and the white images or phrases would remain. This is very similar to modern day white crayons. Some eggs were dyed a very dark color, usually black, and then their surfaces were scratched with a sharp knife to expose the white shell of the egg. These eggs were called scratch-carved, and the technique gave the egg a negative photo look.

As the tradition of dyeing eggs expanded to outside the Pennsylvania German culture, commercial dyes and pre-dyed eggs began to be sold. By the late 1800s, businesses started to sell not only dye to use in the home but some began to offer eggs that had already been dyed. The March 26, 1880 edition of the York Evening Post newspaper ran an advertisement for eggs that could be “colored beautifully and safely by dipping them in solutions of the analine colors” and further decorated by “wrapping rubber bands around parts of the egg and coloring the rest.” In 1881 in Lebannon, Pennsylvania, local businessman Mr. C. R. Fisher sold one dozen eggs for 5 cents, boasting the “sum charged is trifling compared to the trouble saved.”

Some eggs that were not to be eaten were intended to be used as decoration from year to year. Rather than being boiled, the eggs had small holes poked at each end, and the contents were blown out; the eggs were then left to dry before decorating. Once decorated, the eggs were hung from an Easter egg tree. The idea of an Easter egg tree was not customary until the mid 1900s. The first mention of an egg tree was in 1876 when a Philadelphia man hung eggs from an evergreen bough. Easter egg trees came in all shapes and sizes, but the traditional ones featured deciduous branches that were simply wrapped in cotton and weighted down for display.

As you are dyeing your own eggs this Easter, take a moment to remember that you are continuing a tradition that is centuries old.