Antique Eggs in the Old Barn
At the beginning of the barn restoration the work crew found a hand blown glass egg buried in the ground beneath a beam. The discovery occurred during the first few “dangerous” days. The barn was leaning heavily to one side, and one of the vertical support beams inside the barn was broken, and no one knew if the barn would collapse when the work began. One of the rotted sill beams, which should have been resting on the foundation, was lying in the dirt. While he was digging, a workman disturbed a round white object, and when he picked it up, he discovered it was a perfectly preserved glass egg. He realized if his shovel had dug just a little to the right, he would have smashed the egg. The following day another glass egg was found.
The builder was so excited to share the find. When I arrived to see if the barn was still standing after another day of tugging and bracing Laurie, co-owner of Southslope WoodWorks, trotted up to me as soon as I got out of my car. “Look what we found,” she exclaimed, and she held out a small box. Inside, two eggs were lying on a bed of brown tissue paper.
Laurie said, “It looks like they’re chicken eggs. We can’t believe they’re not broken. The guys were pretty excited when they found these. I wonder what they were used for?”
I bet they were employed to fool a farmer’s chickens, but I wasn’t sure if they fooled the chickens into laying more eggs or if they encouraged the hen to lay less eggs. I’ve raised pigeons and placed plastic eggs under hens to slow down breeding in my lofts, but usually people want chickens to lay more eggs, because they eat the eggs. But I’ve never kept chickens, so I wasn’t sure how the fake eggs worked.
I took the question to several online pigeon fancy groups I belong to, because many of these folks also raise chickens. I discovered that glass eggs were very common in the mid-nineteenth century. On the farm the plain white eggs had several uses: they were placed in an outside nest (usually on the ground) to encourage the hen to lay in the same place (so the farmer could easily find the eggs), and inside the coop they were placed in the nesting box to help induce a hen to begin laying eggs.
In the late 1800s glass eggs were decorated with colorful painted designs and given as gifts on Easter. Since the eggs were made of glass, they lasted much longer than a real egg (as long as they remained unbroken) and became treasured heirlooms.
Terry B from PigeonsNW explained how glass eggs helped with darning socks. She wrote: “The egg was placed inside the toe or heel of the sock and the darning needle would slip across the egg surface during a stitch rather than snag other parts of the sock.” Clever!
Roy Cooke a longtime pigeon fancier who lives in Georgia told me some people used “an instrument called a darning egg.” A darning egg was made out of wood and sometimes it was painted. A long handle was attached to the wide bottom of the egg.
The glass eggs tricked not only chickens and Easter celebrators, into thinking they could be real eggs, but they also mislead snakes. Snakes eat eggs. Cooke explained how eggs were sometimes used to lessen the snake population around the chicken coop. When a farmer was having frequent problems with snakes eating his family’s chicken eggs, he would place glass eggs in the nest. The snake would slither into the coop, find the nest box, and eat the glass egg. As the snake tried to leave the coop by sliding through the same slim hole in the wire, the bulge caused by the egg would snag the snake, and the egg would break. And as Roy said, “No more snake.” Roy reminded me these practices occurred in parts of the rural South where a family’s food came from what they could grow a raise, and the people’s resources for predator control was often ingenuity.
I’ve thought about what I might do with the glass eggs found in our barn. I’ll be raising chicks in the spring, but I’m afraid I won’t risk breaking these eggs by actually “using” them around the farm. I will display them somehow in our new house –along with a pile of square nails–as a reminder of a period in American history when everyday objects were both useful and beautiful.
Author’s Note: Thanks to Roy Cooke, Samir Dzafic, Terry B, and Richard Cotrrell who provided family stories and historic information for this essay.
To see Richard Cottrell’s extensive Victorian Era Easter egg collection please visit My Old Historic House
Question for Readers:
Do you have any stories to share about glass eggs from your family history?