The best laid plans…

Eggs from the chickens at Rouse Hill House and Farm

Eggs from the chickens at Rouse Hill House and Farm. Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums

“Nothing is worse than stale eggs” states Isabella Beeton,
“… stale, or even preserved eggs, are things to be run from, not after.”

I can imagine having to run after chickens but not eggs, but needless to say, fresh is always best. Traditionally, most households would keep a few chooks to ensure a regular supply of eggs, a trend that is happily on the increase in suburban Sydney today. With the convenience of refrigeration, the idea of preserving eggs may seem odd these days, but it was the topic of much debate in days gone by.

Belle Thorburn feeding the chooks at Meroogal Nowra around 1925

Belle Thorburn feeding the chooks at Meroogal around 1925 (detail). June Wallace papers, Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums

Good clean dirt?

Much attention is given in nineteenth-century domestic manuals and household books to the quality, freshness and preservation of eggs. We’ve discussed various preservation methods in past posts, either coating them with butter or oil then rolling them in bran or sawdust, or later, in the twentieth-century, with products such as Ke-peg, a commercial gel-like product to coat the egg and prevent air permeating the porous shell. Other advice is to keep the eggs in their unwashed state, to preserve their coating of natural oils, but depending on the conditions in the hen house and chicken run, this method works against our ideas of hygiene and food safety.

Freshly gathered eggs

Freshly gathered eggs. Photo Jacqui Newling © Sydney Living Museums

Clever contraptions

For egg production on larger scales, clever devices were developed to clean and sort them. Early twentieth-century egg washing machines can be found on display at Millthorpe Golden Memories museums and Wollondilly Heritage Centre, remarkably, in working order. Their genius is in their simplicity. By turning an arm at one end long dowels bound with rope are wound around, simultaneously rubbing the dirt off the egg and moving them forward before they are rolled into a wire mesh catchment where workers would pack them into egg cartons.

Egg washing conveyor c1920s

Egg conveyor belt, 1920s-1930s, photographer and date unknown, courtesy and © Wollondilly Heritage Centre/The Oaks Historical Society

 “I have seen a nice contrivance in a Hen-House of sloping shelves with little divisions in them, and saw-dust placed under the eggs.”

Storing eggs was also a valid concern. Maria Macarthur was advised of a storage system by her godmother Mrs ‘E’ (Enderby) in 1812, who took the time to draw a sketch of the ‘contrivance’ in her letter, essentially a racking system to keep them from rolling about and risk breakage. If used in an organised fashion, the eggs could be properly managed and be sorted “regularly as they are laid, [so] that you must use the stalest first.” That said, there is a theory that older eggs are better for meringues, though this too seems to open for debate, as is whether eggs should be brought to room temperature before cooking… too many theories, too many rules – it’s never as simple as it seems!

Cook’s tips:

The best way to test the freshness of an egg is the float test. As eggs age they lose density and the air pocket inside them expands, so a fresh egg will sink straight to the bottom of a bowl of water, a stale one will float. Any that bob or roll under the surface and don’t seem to be able to make up their minds are probably ok to use, floating eggs I tend to give to our dog, to her great glee.

For this same reason, very fresh eggs are hard to shell when boiled, as the membrane tends to be closely attached to the egg white. To detach the membrane from the white, crack the egg on a board with a good ‘thwack’ and roll it along the board with a firm but not squashing action and it should be easier to shell.

Turned wood egg stand, Narryna, Hobart.

Turned wood egg stand, Narryna, Hobart. Photo Scott Hill © Sydney Living Museums


Mrs E[nderby] [A letter of] Advice to a young lady in the colonies (1812). Barca, ed 1979.