The tradition of coloring eggs at Easter
We all have the memory:
Opening up a pack of Paas Easter egg dye, mixing the tablet with water, and gently swishing the white hard-boiled egg until it turned a pastel pink, blue or other color we had chosen.
It was a messy endeavor for many of us as children, but we knew what would come next: hunting for the brightly colored eggs on church grounds, in our yard with friends or in a neighbor’s yard with those same friends.
At auction recently, I came across two packets of Easter egg dye in plain wrapping. The style of print on the packets – and their lack of color – told me that these were not made yesterday but long ago. One bore the familiar name of Paas, the same dye kit that I remembered from my own childhood. But this one contained transfer sheets to decorate the eggs.
The other was Chick-Chick, which I did not recognize, but learned that the company was in operation around the same time that William Townley of Paas created his own way of dying and decorating eggs.
Both companies were continuing a tradition that started in Africa, where pieces of ostrich shells with scratched decorations were found in tombs or at digs. In 2010, a group found some decorated ostrich eggs that dated back to 65,000 to 55,000 years ago.
This tradition of decorating eggs may have moved out of Africa into other lands through migration, but it seems that most cultures have a tradition of decorating eggs – and many of those traditions are similar.
Easter eggs themselves are said to go back to spring pagan festivals, where the egg was a symbol of new life and rebirth. It’s a symbol that lasted through the centuries. Although the egg is not mentioned in the Bible, some have linked it to the resurrection of Christ. Some say that decorating eggs for Easter goes back to the 13th century, but that seems to be speculation.
In this country, the notion of a rabbit that lays eggs for Easter is attributed to stories brought to Pennsylvania by German immigrants in the 1700s. Their children would presumably make nests for the rabbits to lay their already-colored eggs.
How the tradition of coloring eggs got started seems to also be based on theory tied to the Easter story and others. One is that when Mary Magdalene brought eggs to Jesus’ tomb, they all changed into different colors. Another is that when she brought cooked eggs to the tomb they turned to the color of blood when she saw that Christ had risen.
By the late 1800s, though, coloring eggs had become a way to commercially make money. Townley, who owned a drug store in Newark, NJ, started selling packets of dye to customers at Easter for 5 cents. They sold very well, so he sold them (in bulk, no doubt) to other druggists for sale to their customers. Townley incorporated his company in 1881, and named it Paas Dye Co., from the Dutch word “Paasdag,” which means Easter Day. (The Paas website says it came from the word “Passen,” used by the Pennsylvania Dutch for Easter.)
The dyes were made from food coloring at a plant in Newark, and soon Townley was offering transfer sheets, too. He began selling the Paas Easter egg dye kits – which contained five colors that were to be mixed with water or vinegar – in 1893.
It seems that Fred Fears started making Easter egg dyes around the same time or soon after. Fears & Co. of New York, which seems to have been founded in the early 1890s, made several products, including maple syrup, salad dressing, clam juice, fly paper and matches.
His Chick-Chick egg dye kit was advertised in several issues of a druggist publication in the early years of the 20th century. The kit was a little different from Townley’s: His dye was concentrated in colored papers, not tablets or powders. This difference was pointed out repeatedly in the advertisements, to show that they were not as messy as the other.
Chick-Chick packets were sold for 5 cents each, and contained eight color sheets and 100 transfer sheets. That was the price for customers. Druggists could order a box of 42 packets for $1, for a 110 percent profit, the ads boasted. The druggists would also get a lithographic cutout on an easel for window display.
As for the two packets at auction, Chick-Chick may be from the late 19th century to the early part of the 20th century. The same may be true of Paas since the lettering was so similar.
Both were still intact, as if they had just been purchased. On its front, Chick-Chick noted that its instructions were in eight languages.