As Americans moved off farms and into cities some 100 years ago, our source of eggs shifted from the hen house to the grocery store. Although the still-new technology of refrigeration was making the transport of perishable foods possible, conveying fragile eggs to faraway markets posed a special problem. In 1910, a U.S. Department of Agriculture report estimated that breakage (and spoilage) cost $45 million annually.
Farmers collected eggs in wicker or wire baskets, but these were neither stackable nor sturdy; the eggs bumpity-bumped aboard trains and carts into town. Soon inventors and tinkerers were competing for solutions. In 1880, The Poultry World advertised the “Novelty Egg Basket” in which “eggs may be packed and sent a thousand miles with perfect safety… One trial will convince the most skeptical.”
Or not. Eighteen years later, the first patent was filed for the 12-egg carton. Its big innovation— the separation of eggs into snug compartments—remains the model today. In the ensuing 50 years, inventors filed dozens more patents. In 1913, Popular Mechanics reported on the “Egg Crate for the Coat Pocket” (pictured above), which targeted commuting businessmen bringing home eggs along with the bacon. Two years later, the big innovation was… the asbestos carton.
These new cartons drove sales, too. A jauntily dressed woman inspects an open carton in a 1919 ad in Everybodys Poultry Magazine. “The egg consumer cheerfully pays a higher price at the grocery for eggs in a neat attractive sealed package,” the ad reads, “and the grocer, in turn, pays more to you.” Today we take the carton for granted. It’s the free-range, cage-free, bug-fed, heirloom eggs themselves that fetch a premium.
MAKE IT NOW: Our recipe for Featherbed Eggs is free through November 4, 2013.