Eggs by mail for city folks? Metal crates made it easy
The mottled and dirty metal box was shut when I approached it at the auction house, but I noticed the words “Fragile” and “Eggs” on the soiled lid. The top also held an address label and two almost-indecipherable postage stamps.
Curious, I lifted the lid and saw cardboard cylinders trimmed in metal and looped together in a wavy pattern. Brown plastic eggs had been tucked inside a handful of them. That made me even more curious about what I was looking at.
I found the answer in a page of instructions that came with the box. This was a container for transporting eggs by mail – an important light-bulb invention, I’m sure, half a century ago but an anachronism now. The instructions showed how to pack and remove the eggs, along with the costs for eggs and butter, and postage (5 cents to insure eggs for $5, and PO pays for broken eggs). The container was made by the Metal Products Co. of Fredericksburg, VA.
The long-devoured eggs had been sent from Bainbridge, PA, to a woman in Carlisle, PA. I could find no date on the container, only a marred 12-cent stamp featuring Zachary Taylor (released 1938) and a 2-cent stamp with John Adams (1939), putting the date around 1939.
I had never come across such a container before, and never knew that folks actually sent something so delicate as eggs through the mail. Googling, I found several articles about the contemporary practice of mailing eggs not necessarily for eating but for hatching. There seems to be a steady market for it: You can even buy eggs for hatching on eBay.
These eggs are not sent to you in metal containers; times have changed. From the early 20th century until about 1950, metal containers appeared to have been the norm. And the design of the carriers hasn’t changed much since Stuart Ellis created that first aluminum one.
With the advent of Parcel Post in 1913, once-isolated rural areas became connected to the city, and farmers could sell and get their products out to city dwellers, as well as to small stores and farther-away neighbors. Parcel Post made it a bit cheaper to ship heavy objects by mail.
Before then, people had to send packages by private express if they weighed more than four pounds, which meant high shipping rates. Parcel Post reduced those rates and standardized the costs.
Most folks have never heard of Ellis, who filed a patent for his invention of a crate for shipping eggs in 1917. He apparently had been selling the crates before that at his Metal Egg Crate Co. in Washington, DC.
He made aluminum crates capable of getting fragile eggs from here to there with as little damage as possible. He kept the eggs away from each other by using paper cylinders as separators, and tissue paper or other soft materials as cushions.
The crates varied in size, with the capability of holding from two dozen up to six dozen eggs (A 1929 ad offered containers to hold from one dozen to 15 dozens to send to “high class city and town trade“). Ellis’ company, based in Fredericksburg, VA, by the early 1920s, also included illustrated instructions with each container.
The reusable crates were advertised in 1921 for 85 cents and up, and ads encouraged people to buy their eggs “strictly fresh” directly from the producers and have them delivered at their door. Ellis’ company, according to the ad, also made crates for butter and other farm products, and these could be purchased at seed and farm-tool stores.
Everyone didn’t take the ads as gospel. In a 1925 issue of Good Housekeeping where the ad ran, one writer warned that the eggs might not be so fresh, especially if they had been sitting in a city distributor’s cold storage for months before being delivered.
One museum in Richmond, VA, has in its collection an egg crate that a daughter used after World War II to send eggs to her mother in New York. The crates were still being used at least until the 1950s. The Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum has crates in its collection that held up to six dozen eggs.
These were much bigger than the much-narrower container at auction.