The Invention of Eggs
We take eggs for granted; cocooned in their distinctively dimpled cardboard boxes, in groups of six or twelve, produced en-masse and stacked high on the supermarket shelves; but eggs were not always so conveniently shaped or conveniently packaged as the modern eggs we have today.
The earliest use of eggs in cooking is difficult to date precisely, but it is believed they were first in common use in Northern and Eastern Asia some ten thousand years ago. These rudimentary eggs would have been nothing like we might see today, which, without a protective shell and runny, would have needed to be used almost immediately.
It was the Chinese who first put eggs into shells, but not for any culinary application. Records from the Han Dynasty, around 100BC, show eggs being put into sections of bamboo and sealed with lead stoppers. Such eggs would have been buried for many months until their contents had become thoroughly toxic. In battle, these resilient containers would be heated on an open fire before being launched at the enemy. Exploding on impact, they would cause mayhem. Over time, the practical military use of these egg containers gave way to decoration and artistry. By the Tang Dynasty, 618–907AD, beautifully painted lacquered wood or ceramic egg-pots had become common.
For many years historians maintained that the ancient civilisations of the Middle East and Mediterranean didn’t use eggs. But the discovery of small clay pots at ancient sites in Turkey and Jordan, often in groupings of six, has created something of a debate over the issue.
For Europe though, the true introduction of eggs wasn’t until 1295, when Marco Polo returned from his long voyage to the far East. Though it was unknown if it was Marco Polo himself or one of his retainers who was responsible, it was not long before eggs had started to make their way into Viennese cooking. Not, however, in a form we might recognise today. These first Viennese eggy delicacies were given a soft skin made of pig or sheep intestine and usually hard boiled. These rubbery sausage-shaped eggs proved very popular and within a matter of a decade had spread throughout much of Europe. A variation on this was the round egg wrapped in sausage meat and coated in bread-crumbs that became popular in Scotland at this time. Known as the Scotch egg, it is still popular today.
Unlike the original Chinese eggs, the soft skins of the early European eggs made them difficult to store or transport in an uncooked state, and their use in baking was usually limited to their place of manufacture. It was a later invention in England that would lead to a more profound development in egg technology, the egg shell.
In the fifteenth Century, popular lawn games, including the Italian game of trucco and bowls, were brought indoors and scaled-down to be played upon the table. These billiard tables employed wooden cues to knock the balls round obstacles or into pockets. Early versions with the inflated bladders of fish for the balls were adequate, but the dried bladders were too lightweight and somewhat smelly. Filling them with egg and hard boiling them was a good solution, but the fragile skins would still break too easily. It was Barrington, the son of Lord Effington Gander, in 1545 who first had his eggs given a ceramic coating. Which considerably improved the durability of the billiard balls.
Though these eggs weren’t specifically intended for eating, it became a popular pastime amongst the nobility to attempt to eat an egg at the breakfast board: something that might involve the vigorous use of a large flattened bat in order to smash the hardened shell (This may also have lead to the development of the game of cricket, but that is a subject for another article).
Over time, it was also discovered that uncooked billiard balls were an ideal way to store eggs. By the Seventeenth Century, with its more genteel tastes, the shells of eggs intended for eating were made thinner and the egg-bats replaced with teaspoons. Several variations on egg shape also began to appear at this time. First came the slightly elongated pill or bishop’s egg, favoured by the clergy. Another egg was introduced at Eaton school from about 1745, after an enterprising student, James Kier Pontefract —sick of his breakfast egg turning in the egg-cup as he tried to eat it— developed an egg with a point at each end. In modern times we would say it resembles a rugby ball, but it is believed it wasn’t until the 19th Century that Rugby School altered the shape of the balls used in their games of Rugby football as a mockery of Eaton’s breakfast eggs. To this day Eaton School still proudly serves its traditional pointed eggs at breakfast.
For many years, due to the labour intensive process of their production, eggs were still an expensive foodstuff: more the preserve of the aristocracy than the common man, but that all began to change with the onset of the industrial revolution in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. What had been a handcrafted, cottage industry was mechanised, with the first of the great egg-mills being set up in Ecclesall by Jeremiah Whistler in 1798. Staffordshire soon became famous for its eggshell potteries. But the Luddites saw the human cost in traditional jobs, as egg production moved to the towns, and there were incidents of machinery being smashed. This culminated in the infamous Cannock egg riots of 1818, which lead to a number of deportations. Protests aside, these factory-produced eggs could, for the first time, be afforded by the masses. With the industrial revolution in full swing, and with the aid of Victorian inventiveness, many new egg technologies were developed at this time. This included the much valued Wedgwood Egg, as well as a number of highly dangerous, self-cooking steam eggs. A form of long lasting tin egg was also developed towards the end of the 19th century, which became a staple for the navy.
It was, indirectly, such naval eggs that lead to the development of the modern egg shape we have now. A Swedish scientist, Dr Jörgen Henningson, was serving as a geologist aboard HMS Basset, a British Arctic survey ship. He noticed how the tinned eggs, then a cylindrical shape would roll off the table with the motion of the ship. He surmised a traditional round, or even rugby ball-shaped egg would do the same. Using some wax, he shaped an egg that was rounded at one end and pointed at the other, and to his delight found the egg would roll in a circle rather than straight onto the floor. On the vessel’s return to England, he showed his design to the owner of a large egg factory in Bristol, Sir Percy Briggham. Sir Percy saw the merit of Dr Henningson’s design and immediately stole the idea, applying it to the production of all his eggs. Other egg makers followed suit and within months eggs throughout the civilised world changed from being round, to the recognisable Briggham egg we see today. Sadly, Dr Henningson never received a penny for his invention and died a hopeless laudanum addict in London only two years later. It would be fifty years before his contribution to the world was recognised he was posthumously awarded the Nobel Prize.
With the outbreak of the First World War, eggs were once more looked to as weapons in the arena of war. But after a few live battlefield tests that produced almost as many British casualties as German, both sides decided to stick with the safer and more benign mustard gas. People hoped that their eggs would be left just as they were after this, but with the start of World War Two, and a scarcity of both men and materials for the production of eggshells, the more efficient, if less popular, square egg was developed in its waxed cardboard packaging. Such eggs were much easier to store and transport, but the cardboard didn’t allow for very successful boiling, and even if it had, the very shape made removing all the egg from the internal corners difficult.
After the war, with its coupons and rationing, the traditional Briggham style eggs began to return to the shops and breakfast tables. Though, as demand increased with the rising population, the traditional egg mills were superseded by larger factories. As technology has advanced into the Twenty-First Century, most modern egg manufacture now takes place in Poland, using robots in vast automated plants.
It has been a long and interesting journey for the humble egg; through Chinese weaponry, European sausage, Royal table-top game, and Victorian Industrialisation, to the familiar shaped egg, shipped from their giant egg plants, we know and love today. But it is also nice to know, if you ask around, that it is still possible to find locally produced eggs, still handmade in the traditional way. And nothing beats a proper old-fashioned egg, except perhaps a whisk if you fancy it scrambled.
by Simon Cornish