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?