Boomers Dyed Their Easter Eggs

This week’s flashback is brought to you by Easter. We’ve talked before about how Easter has changed through the years since baby boomers were young, especially in terms of fashions (Our Sunday Best for Easter). Yet there’s one aspect of Easter that has hardly changed at all through the decades: the tradition of dyeing Easter eggs. The concept was easy enough: boil vinegar and water and mix with a colorant, dip boiled eggs in until the desired color was obtained. In the early days a wide variety of vegetables or plants could be used as colorants.

The practice was probably brought to the New World by Eastern European immigrants in the 1700s. It was a New Jersey drug store owner, William Townley, who worked out a process in the late 1800s to make the dyeing of Easter eggs easier. Selling packets of powdered dye to his customers, the leakage from the medicinal wrapping paper he used quickly became too much to deal with, so Mr. Townley moved his packaging to the store’s basement. Before long he wanted a way to dispose of the dye packet — and its mess — entirely, and he experimented with creating a dye tablet.

Having successfully created and sold dye tablets at his own store and to other druggists, Townley incorporated the PAAS Dye Company in 1881 to manufacture and distribute his Easter egg dye tablets. He took his company name from the Dutch word for Easter, Paasdag. PAAS made the tablets in five colors, and even though it was a seasonal business, ran its factory year ’round to meet demand.

No one liked hard-boiled eggs in Mister B’s family, except his mother, so Easter egg dyeing was kept to a minimum: the number rarely rose above six. Mister Boomer recalls both homemade dyes in his boomer youth, as well as purchases of PAAS dye tablets. His mother would pour a little vinegar in four or five coffee cups, add water that had been boiled in a tea kettle, and then it was the kids’ turn to add a few drops of food coloring as the colorant. The food coloring was left over from making Christmas cookie icing, so there was red, blue, green and yellow. The early days were messy and hot, as Mister B recalls trying to fish a hot egg out of the coffee cup with a tablespoon. Mister B and his siblings would remove the eggs and place them in a bowl to dry, often touching another egg in the process (Ma, he’s touching my egg!). Not an ideal situation.

The PAAS package did make things easier. First, it came with a wire egg dipper that was easy for kids to use. An octagon made from bent wire held the egg in place for its bath, connected to a handle that allowed for easy dunking and lifting from the hot liquid. PAAS went one step further and perforated circles on the back of their package. When the circles were punched out, the resulting hole provided the perfect resting spot for a half-dozen of the hot, wet eggs.

After a few years, each of Mister B’s siblings had their own wire dipper that was kept in the knife drawer from one year to another. PAAS also included a clear wax crayon in the package, so any design drawn on an egg with the wax would resist the dye. Mister B did that on occasion, but preferred to try his hand at two-tone or three-tone eggs by dipping only part at a time.

As was the family tradition, Mister B’s father or mother would hide the eggs for Easter morning. When the family returned from church, the kids would search for the eggs and their Easter Baskets. Inevitably, his mother would ask if all the eggs were found, as a hard-boiled egg left hidden would not remain aroma-free for long. Most years, the eggs were discovered quickly enough, especially once the family got a dog, as hiding places became a bit more limited.

One year, one egg was missing. The bowl set out to hold the colorful seasonal symbols looked forlorn as only five of the eggs had returned to their holiday nest. No child had found it, and Mister B’s parents couldn’t remember where it was hidden. The crisis was averted later that day as Mister B’s mother recalled the hidden location. She cracked an Easter egg to celebrate. The kids munched jelly beans instead.

Was the Easter egg tradition part of your upbringing, boomers?

Boomers Loved Their Chocolate Easter Bunnies

As spring ushers in another Easter in the Boomer Era, Mister Boomer is waxing nostalgic for the Easters of yore. In particular, he recalls that marshmallow peeps were OK and jelly beans were good (except for those light blue ones … what flavor was that supposed to be?), but the main candy event every Easter was the chocolate bunny.

Chocolate bunnies didn’t originate in the boomer years. In fact, people have been consuming milk chocolate Easter bunnies as far back as the 1890s, when the tradition was brought to the U.S. by German immigrants. The hollow chocolate bunny made its debut in the 1930s. As World War II rationing took hold in 1942, consumer chocolate production was halted and cacao was diverted to the War effort. Thus the chain of munching chocolate Easter bunnies that was gaining momentum with each passing year was broken.

After the War, a soldier returning home was searching for a business idea. In 1948, Richard Palmer, that former soldier, decided he’d open a candy business. To keep himself out of direct competition with Hershey’s, and to avoid confusion with the E.C. Palmer Candy Company, he defined his business model as seasonal and novelties, beginning with Easter. Among his first confections were hollow chocolate bunny “personalities” that were more like cartoon characters than the traditional standing or seated chocolate bunnies sold up to that point. He applied for and was awarded patents for his chocolate bunny molds.

This differentiation was a hit with new parents and their boomer kids from the start. Richard Palmer was in the right place at the right time, and as a result he is credited with reintroducing the chocolate Easter bunny to a whole new generation. Today, the R.M. Palmer Company is the largest maker of chocolate Easter bunnies in the U.S. as more than 90 million per year are produced. The company expanded to Christmas candies in the early 1960s as boomer families grew, and added year-round novelties in the past three decades.

Easter advertising imagery 1961
The two most important things for an early boomer Easter was chocolate bunnies and church. This montage of advertising imagery from 1961 ilustrates that, with a family dressed for church, Easter basket and chocolate bunny looming large in the minds of the boomer youth. Images taken from Mister B's collection.

As a general rule, consuming candy was not an everyday occurrence for most boomers. Rather, it was a measured treat reserved for holidays and special occasions. Mister B remembers his family’s candy traditions at Easter. Wicker Easter baskets had been purchased for each of the three children at an early age and were reused year to year. First, Easter grass would line the bottom. Next, a layer of jelly beans would be tossed into the grass, like sugary drops of dew on a spring lawn. A few foil-wrapped chocolate eggs followed. Occasionally, a snap-together plastic egg was placed into the basket, filled with more jelly beans and small chocolate eggs. Two yellow marshmallow peeps were next, set to the sides of the basket to frame the star of the show: the chocolate Easter bunny. Varying in size and shape each year, the bunnies came packed in rectangular cardboard boxes printed with colorful Easter colors, with a good portion of the front panel being made of cellophane to afford a grand view of the chocolate prize inside. The box was nestled into the center of the basket, an edible rabbit in a grass nest.

Come Easter morning, Mister Boomer’s family would search for Easter eggs the family had dyed the day before, but not Easter baskets. His parents preferred to just give Mister B and his siblings the Easter treats without any wrapping or fanfare. Since the children received the same basket each year, there was never a question of which belonged to whom. Brother Boomer, ever into instant gratification, would tear into his bunny box and with a single hand, grab the chocolate bunny by the throat and yanked it from its cardboard mooring. A second later, he had bitten a chunk off the ears. It appears Brother Boomer wasn’t the only person who chose to chomp his bunny ears first. In fact, today it is reported that 76% of people prefer to eat the ears first. As for Mister B, he preferred to savor the experience bit by bit. He may have allowed himself a nibble of ear at a time, but wouldn’t take the entire chocolate auditory system in a single act of carnage.

Like Halloween candy, the candy in an Easter basket was intended to last for while. Being home from school for spring break gave us the perfect schedule for dispatching the contents. Naturally, a watchful eye was always judicious when Brother Boomer’s basket was empty, lest he raid the remaining two baskets to satisfy his first-born cravings.

What memories of chocolate Easter bunnies are dancing through your heads today, boomers?