Eggs dyed with period dyestuffs
A project originally entered in Northern Lights Pentathalon
I started wondering about period egg dyeing when Sarah bas Mordecai and
I undertook to dye 35 dozen eggs with natural dyes for an event. My fancy
was particularly caught by a reference to red Easter eggs in Russia (see
below) and by the beautiful mahogany red we obtained from boiled onion
skins. So I began investigating possible period dyestuffs and methods.
More egg pictures:
This project consists of eggs dyed red and yellow with a variety of period food
and fabric dyestuffs, as well as some eggs dyed blue and green. Dyes used include:
Colored eggs, including red and gilt eggs, can be documented to period
as Easter gifts in a variety of cultures, but what dyes were used in period
is unclear. One of the aims of this experiment is to determine what dyes
might provide the best red and yellow colors and might be most plausible
as the dyestuffs used for dyeing period Easter Eggs.
Blue and Green
Red Cabbage alone and overdyeing Saffron
Solid Color Dyed Eggs in period: Documentation
Pattern Decoration of dyed eggs
My Dye Techniques
Results and Commentary
Lower Left: coated in tumeric mud
Upper right: 2 soaked in Saffron, one bedstraw
Elderberry with vinegar
Soaked in Onion skin
A. Solid color Dyed Eggs: Documentation.
Single solid colored eggs for Easter can be documented to at least the
13th Century. According to Veronica Newell, "One of the earliest known
records of colouring Easter eggs comes from the household accounts of Edward
I, dated 1290, which show an entry of 18d, spent on purchasing 459 eggs,
to be coloured or covered with gold leaf and distributed to members of
the royal household." p 219. [This reference cites William Hone, The
Every-Day Book, London, 1837, i. 429] She continues: "In Poland itself
the first written mention of painted eggs occurs in the thirteenth-century
_Chronicle_ of Archbishop Vincent Kadlubek: 'In distant times the
Poles used to amuse themselves at the expense of their lords with coloured
eggs [pictis ovis].'"
Newall gives a very comprehensive account of the use of dyed eggs in
various cultures all over Europe and parts of Asia, over time. While dyed
eggs and egg-related activities (such as egg rolling and egg-cracking fights)
appear to be primarily associated with Easter by late period, they did
appear in other contexts.
In Eastern Europe, colored egg-shaped items of various materials were
found in various ancient tombs, and eggs appear to have been associated
with burial customs in that part of the world over a long period of time.
Sophie Knab, in Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore, says,
"The oldest written knowledge of pisanki [decorated eggs] at
the graveside was documented in the life of St. Hedwig, which was penned
after her canonization in 1267. The many miraculous healings attributed
to this saint were documented by the wife of King Henryk Brodaty, who told
the following story: When the son of a prominent judge was still unable
to walk at eight years of age, his mother brought the boy to the grave
of St. Hedwig in her arms and was praying to St. Hedwig to heal him when,
lo!, a miracle happened. In the presence of the priest who baptized him
and the abbess of the monastery, the boy suddenly stood up, took an egg
that lay before him and walked around the saint's grave. The abbess took
other decorated eggs and threw them at the feet of the young boy, compelling
him to walk further from the tomb. This miracle is said to have happened
near Easter between 1274 and 1287." (p. 107)
It's not clear whether the original refers to eggs decorated with symbols
and multiple colors, which Poles now refer to as pisanki, or to single-color
eggs, now referred to as krashanki.
Nor were colored eggs solely a Christian, Easter tradition: David Gitlitz
and Linda Davidson quote Spanish Inquisition records refering to
eating "Jewish red eggs".
I tried primarily red and yellow dyes for eggs, because red eggs are
specifically mentioned in Eastern Europe, and gilded eggs are also mentioned.
We do know that other colors of eggs (than red) were known and it seems
a reasonable supposition that less well off people might choose yellow
eggs to imitate the gilded ones. Newall says: " "It is interesting that
much earlier (1557-8) Anthony Jenkinson observed that while the ordinary
people of Russia carried red eggs at Easter, the gentry had theirs gilded."
p. 220, citing Richard Hakluyt, apparently (I did not find this reference
in the abbreviated Hakluyt available to me). Further: ". . . there
are thirteenth century references in both Germany and England. Freidanck,
in his poem _'Bescheidenheit'_ (Modesty), written in 1216, refers to eggs
colored red and black: "ein kint naem ein gewerwet ei /fur ander
drin oder zwei. (a child takes a colored egg, /or perhaps two for those
B. Documentation for patterned decorated eggs
Eggs decorated with patterns may be documentable before the late 1500s,
but the only instructions we have for decorating such eggs is from Hugh
Plat, The Jewel-house of Art & Nature, 1594 (this was
emailled to me as a personal communication).
" 32. How to grave any armes, posies, or other devise
upon an egg shel, & how to through-cut the same, with divers works
& fancies, which will seem very strange to such as know not the maner
of the doing thereof.
Dippe an egge in suet being molten, first the one halfe, and then the
other, holding the same betweene your thumb and forefinger when you dippe
it, let the same coole in your hand, and beeing colde, with a sharpe bodkin
or some other instrument of iron, worke or grave in the suet what letters
or portrature you wil, taking away the suet clean, & leaving the shell
bare at the bottom of your worke. Then lay this eg thus engraved
in good wine vinegar or strong alliger in a Glasse or stone Pottinger,
for some six or eight houres, or more, or lesse, according to the strength
and sharpnesse of the Vinegar, then take out the egge, and in water that
is blood warme disolve the suet from the egge, then lay your egge to coole,
and the woorke will appear to be graven in the shell of a russet color.
Saepius probatum. And if the egge lie long inough in the vineger
after it is so graven, and sovered in suet as before, the letters will
appear upon the egge it selfe being hard sodden, or else if you care not
to loose the meate, you may picke out the same when the shell is through
graven, and so you shall have a strange piece of work perfourmed."
Within a century after the end of SCA period, it appears that
decorated eggs were common, according to Newall: "The Bavarian priest Andreas
Strobl gives a detailed account of contemporary Easter eggs in his collection
of sermons, Ovum Paschael Novum Oder Neugfarbte Oster Ayr of 1694,
in which he writes:
"The whole year eggs do not recieve so much honour as at Easter;
they are gilded, silvered, painted with spots and figures, they are also
painted and decorated with beautiful colors in relief, they are scratched,
they are made into Easter lambs or into a pelican who feeds his young with
his own blood, or they carry the picture of Christ or something else; they
are boiled, they are dyed green, red, yellow, gold, etc. They are made
up and then given as gifts by one good friend to another. They are even
carried in large amounts to church to be blessed, and there are many
who now eat or drink a soft boiled egg, rather than anything else."
(An Egg at Easter, p. 292)
C. Dye Documentation
Saunders (Red Sandalwood)
Saunders is a common food colorant in period cooking. Gingerbread and
certain types of pottages often use Saunders to get a red color. A few
examples: Harleian Ms. 279, "Gyngerbrede... And yif thou wolt haue it Red,
coloure it with Saunderys y-now" (Renfrow, vol. 1, p. 230); "A Potage.
. . and let hem ben Red with Saunderys" (ibid, p. 10); "Murrey. . . coloure
it with Saunderys..." (ibid, p. 118).
John and Margaret Cannon say that "Its use as a dye wood was certainly
known in Europe by the early sixteenth century, and it was sometimes substituted
for brazil wood by unscrupulous dealers." p. 98
Onions skins were used both before and after period for dyeing, though
I found no specific reference to them as a Medieval/Renaissance dye. Sue
Grierson says, "There are reports of the use of onion skins for dyeing
in classical Greece, in Persia, and the Middle East, and by primitive tribes
of Africa" and also notes, unfortunately without dating her reference,
"In central Europe they were used as a dye for Easter eggs, linen, wool,
and especially cotton." p. 134.
Newall specifically mentions Brazilwood as a dye for 'red eggs' in
Eastern Europe, but she gives no specific date reference. Elise Fleming
lists two citations of brazilwood as a period food coloring.
J.N Lilies says, "The 'brazilwood' of the European Middle ages, Caesalpina
sappan (sappanwood), came from India, Malaya, and Ceylon." p. 139. Jenny
Dean points out "From the Middle Ages to the mid-19th century, brazilwood
from Caesalpinia sappan was an important commercial dyestuff, and recipes
for this plant appear frequently in master dyer's manuals," p. 78. Gill
Darby says, "Brazilwood was the principle ingredient for making red ink
as well as for colouring textiles, and was mentioned as early as 1321.
By the end of the 14th century it was in wide use for dyeing protein fibres:"
p. 18. The Cannons mention that it was "imported into Provence under that
name [brazilwood] in the thirteenth century" p. 36. Modern brazilwood is
probably the South American tree, but sappan and brazilwood seem to be
considered near-identical by dyers.
Elise Fleming lists alkanet root as a period food dye, and Gill Darby
says, "It is a dyestuff that has been used since ancient times..." p. 18.
John and Margaret Cannon explain: "Alkanet . . . use is mentioned in Graeco-Egyptian
papyri from the third century A.D. It was used for cosmetic purposes in
ancient Greece and Rome, and as a wine colorant until very recently..."
According to J. N. Lilies, "Madder (R. tinctorium) . . . was
grown in very limited areas in Italy for wool dyeing as early as 50 A.D.,
and in Belgium, Holland, France, and Northern Spain by the eighth century..."
p. 104. Jenny Dean ads, "Madder is one of the most ancient dyes and its
existence can be traced as far back as the Indus civilization of around
3000 BCE. Madder was cultivated throughout Europe and the Middle East,
and the finest quality dyestuff came from Turkey, Holland, and France"
(p. 124) Su Grierson gives extensive evidence for the use of Madder in
12th to 15th century Scotland, and also mentions its presence at the Viking-age
Copppergate excavations in York.
Logwood, a New World dye, was apparently introduced into Europe very
quickly. Gill Dalby mentions that "The use of logwood was prohibited by
law in England from 1581-1662" (p. 23); the Cannons say that "it was imported
into England by the middle of the sixteenth century."
Cochineal bugs and the resulting dye were discovered by Europeans in
1518, according to Gill Dalby, and cochineal reds are similar to those
from "Polish cochineal, Porphyrophora polonica, [which] was commonly used
in Europe before the advent of cochineal from America," p. 19. Cochineal
is chemically similar to kermes, the most popular insect based red of the
middle ages, which is now endangered and seldom obtainable.
J.N. Lilies says, "Turmeric (Curcuma longa or "Indian saffron,"
was used from earliest times, at least in India and China, for bright clear
yellows and greens..." p. 33; Lilies also mentions it being "thickened
with gum" and painted on objects to be dyed. Johna and Margaret
Cannon give one reference to using it as a colorant in Europe, slightly
postperiod, from Hugh Plat's Delights for Ladies, in which a decoction
of warm "tumeric, rhubarb or barberry tree" is applied to the hair after
washing with alum (p. 106).
Saffron was widely used to color foods yellow in period. A few examples
from Harleian MS. 279: "Hennys in Gauncelye... an coloure it with Safroun..."
(Renfrow, vol. 1, p. 86); "Rapeye. . . an coloure it wyth Safroun, an with
Saunderys . . ."(ibid, p. 172)
J.N. Lilies says, "Saffron (Crocus sativus) dyes a very clear yellow
with a slight orange tinge... dyes substantively but is fugitive to light.
Even though extremely expensive, the dye was used rather extensively quite
early in the Middle East, Egypt, and other Mediterranean countries, and
in Europe during the Middle Ages." p. 24. John and Margaret Cannon point
out "Saffron was much esteemed in ancient Persia, where documents and the
robes of emperors were dyed with it . . . by the late Middle Ages, its
cultivation had spread to what are now Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria
and Germany . .. It was used as a hair dye in Venice in the late sixteenth
century by fashionable ladies..." p. 94.
Onion Skins are widely believed to give a yellow rather than a red
dye. J.N. Lilies suggests it among the common plants that give a yellow
dye (p. 35).
Bedstraw is referred to by implication as a period dye, but no specific
time periods are mentioned. Grierson alleges it was used in Scotland and
John and Margaret Cannon mention it also. Herbals (such as Parkinson's
in Sole) speak of it being used to rennet cheese, rather than for dyeing.
Rumpolt's 1581 "Ein New Kochbuch" mentions red cabbage in period:
"Take a head of red cabbage/ cut it nice and small/ and blanch it a
little in hot water/ then cool quickly/ make it with vinegar and oil/and
if it lies a while in the vinegar/ it becomes nice and red." (translation
posted to the SCA-Cooks list by Adamantius)
John Parkinson's 1629 Paradisius Terrestris also mentions red
cabbage, as does the 1652 edition of Thomas Hill's Gardener's Labyrinth,
first published in 1577; so red cabbage was also known in England by the
early 17th century.
I found no documentation on red cabbage as period dye. However, red
cabbage dye is not at all fast-- in fact you can't use vinegar with
it as it precipitates all the color out. It would be almost impossible
to use it on anything more permanent than eggshells and food. However,
the color change Rumpolt notes is distinctive as is the staining from working
with it.. Red cabbage would have been available as a stored food in late
winter, and the dyebath is a by-product of cooking the cabbage. I believe
that it is plausible that the cabbage cooking water was used to dye eggs
Grierson mentions that a recipe for obtaining blue from elderberries
appears in William Ward, 1558. "According to Warde, the berries were firstly
gathered and dried int eh sun, then soaked in vinegar for 12 hours. They
were rubbed with the hands and passed through a linen sieve or cloth and
then mixed with verdigris and alum. A this stge the linen cloth was laid
in the juice and left to soak" and Grierson further quotes, "According
to Pliny (Bk. XV, Ch. 7) elderberries were used as a black hair dye" p.
D. My dye techniques
I was not able to find any period documentation on how to dye eggs.
Combining modern egg dyeing techniques with techniques suggested for using
the dyestuffs on fabric, I tried both hot water and cool water dyebaths.
Fabric is generally dyed in a hot water bath, which I approximated by boiling
the eggs in the dye solution. However, accounts of 'traditional' (i.e.,
post period) egg dyeing don't always call for the eggs to be hard boiled.
If eggs are hard boiled, it is generally before dyeing. (To make transporting
them easier, I hardboiled all the eggs in this experiment, either in the
hot dyebaths or before using the cold dyebaths. Because all the dye solutions
are water based, I doubt that the preboiling had any significant effect
on the results.)
For hot dyebaths, I boiled the dyestuff in water, then added the eggs
and boiled 15-30 minutes.
For cool dyebaths, I soaked most of the dyestuffs in hot water (except
Modern egg dyeing usually uses vinegar. While vinegar may effect the
PH of the dye solution and change the color, it primarily makes the eggshells
more porous so they will accept the dye better. I've tried some of the
dyestuffs with and without vinegar added, to see how it affects dye absorption
and the resulting hues. (The vinegar used for these experiments was standard
5% acidity white vinegar; in period, if vinegar was used, it could have
been either red or white wine vinegar, malt vinegar (alegar) or possibly
apple cider vinegar. I used the white vinegar to be sure it would not add
color to the dye.)
The eggs used were standard, USDA 'small' grade eggs, because large
quantities (flats of two and a half dozen) could be obtained cheaply. A
side effect of the egg choice is that these eggs, smaller and less uniform
than USDA larger grades, may be closer to period eggs. Hower, the lower
quality showed in streaking and splotching in the dye absorption.
I first tried boiling eggs in 4 cups of water with a teaspoon and a half
of saunders powder. This produced only a faint pink, even when the eggs
were left to sit in the dye water over night. [Note: no example survived]
The second time, I soaked already boiled eggs in a solution of 2 tsp saunders
and 2 cups water with 2-3 tsp white vinegar. This produced a darker, but
blotchy, pink, probably because the saunders did not stay dissolved in
the water. (This was even when I frequently moved the eggs around in the
I soaked about 2 cups of yellow onion skins in about 2 cups of water and
boiled it for 5 minutes, then added the eggs. Boiling the eggs for 20 to
30 minutes (I took some out early) produced varying shades of red-brown.
The longest boiling produced a beautiful mahogany-red; lesser boilings
produced oranges and red-brown oranges.
First, several tablespoons of powdered brazilwood was soaked in 3 cups
water for 12 hours. Hardboiled eggs were submerged in this dye for about
an hour at a time, producing a vivid, shockingyu pink-red, though with
considerable spotting and splotching even when the eggs were agitated gently
every few minutes.
The liquid part of the solution above was brought to a boil and eggs were
added and simmered for 15 minutes. The result was a dark pink-red.
I also tried eggs boiled in the Brazilwood solution with vinegar.
I first simmered 3 tbsp. of chopped, dried alkanet root for an hour in
3 c. of water. (It later turned out that the enamel pot I used had a rust
spot.) The solution was left to steep for 2 days, and then eggs were simmered
for 20 minutes in it. These eggs were a light gray brown.
When I took the solution above and added 3 tsp of vinegar, and boiled the
eggs in it, I got a lovely medium brown.
For my next attempt, I simmered 6 tsps of chopped, dried alkanet root in
4 cups water (in an aluminum pot) for an hour, and let steep overnight.
Eggs boiled in this solution came out a bluish-grey.
I took approximately 3 tablespoons of madder roots, peeled off their outer
bark, broke them up and soaked them overnight in 1 quart of water, then
simmered it for 45 minutes, added the eggs and simmered for 15-20 minutes,
producing lovely burgundy-purple colors.
4 tsp. logwood powder was soaked in 1 1/2 cups boiling water for
about 1/2 an hour; eggs were soaked in the infusion for 45 minutes, producing
a dark hot pink.
I dissolved 1/2 teaspoon of ground cochineal in 2 cups water and brought
it to a simmer, then boiled eggs in it for 15-20 minutes producing a beautiful
I then removed the dyebath from the heat, let it cool for 10 minutes, and
added hard boiled eggs. Soaking these in the dyebath for 1/2 hour produced
a lighter, bright pink.
3 teaspoons of tumeric in a bath of 3 cups water and 3-4 teaspoons white
vinegar. Eggs soaked in this tea for half an hour turned a light clear
yellow; an hour turned them light goldenrod color.
After discarding the water, I took the turmeric 'mud' and buried an egg
in it (to approximate the painting-on method referred to by Lilies), which
turned the eggs light clear yellow in 5 minutes.
My first attempt involved boiling the eggs first, then soaking them in
a tea of 1 1/2 teaspoons of saffron, 3 cups of water, and 2 teaspoons of
vinegar. 3 hours of soaking produced no more than a light yellow.
My second attempt involved 4 cups of water, 2 teaspoons of saffron, and
2 teaspoons of vinegar, boiled with the eggs for 15-20 minutes, then they
eggs were left to sit in the boiled decoction for about an hour. The results
were a slightly darker light yellow.
I took the boiled water from the onion skins and soaked hard boiled eggs
in it for no more than 5 minutes; they came out a light clear orange.
2-3 tablespoons bedstraw roots were rinsed and broken into pieces, briefly
soaked, and then simmered for about an hour. One hard boiled egg was soaked
immediately in the resulting infusion, producing a light yellow.
The infusion was allowed to cool and soak overnight. The next day, eggs
were boiled in the solution for 20 minutes, then left to soak. This produced
a light yellow-orange similar to the soaked egg.
Blue and Green Dyes
Shredding 2 lbs of cabbage, I cooked it in enough water to cover (about
3 and a half cups) for about 20 minutes until it was cooked through and
tender-crisp. I drained out the cabbage and cooled the decoction somewhat.
Then I soaked 6 hardboiled eggs in the resulting tea for periods between
1/2 and one hour. Oddly, one egg remained a light blue after being soaked
for an hour: others picked up coloration variations and striations which
may be the result of poor quality eggs or may be the result of dye deposits.
Two of the light saffron-dyed eggs had come out with a poor quality dyeing,
so I slipped them into the blue dyebath for about 20 minutes and found
that they produced a green-blue. (I took them out after 20 minutes in the
dyebath for fear that they would turn entirely blue.)
2 tablespoons of dried elderberries were bruised and partially crushed
in a mortar, then combined with 2 cups of water, and brought to a boil.
Fresh eggs were placed in the dyebath and boiled for 15 minutes. The resulting
eggs were a purple or greenish gray.
- Inspired by Wm. Warde's recipe, another attempt included bruising 2 tablespoons
of dried elderberries and soaking overnight in 3/4 c. white distilled vinegar.
The resulting solution was mixed 1 to 3 with water and eggs were soaked
in this for about an hour; it produced a dark grey egg.
It's not clear from Plat's recipe whether you start with a dyed egg, so
I tried both dyed and undyed eggs.
It seems that Plat probably started with a colored egg and removed the
coloration by scratching and vinegar. A thick coat of lard seems to be
necessary; trying this again with beeswax would be interesting. Scraping
the lard off the patterned parts was difficult; if i did this over again,
I would use only line scratches rather than trying to uncover large portions
of the shell with the knife.
One onion-skin red egg (with some dye splotching) was dipped in lard and
the resulting covering was scratched off with a sharp knife (taking some
of the dye with it) in the shape of a heart and two lines. This egg was
soaked in white distilled vinegar for 24 hours. The result was that the
dyed eggshell exposed to the vinegar began to dissolve, leaving clear lines--
however, it's obvious that a better tool than a serrated knife will have
to be used to scrape off the lard in order to get more even coverage.
One cold-water brazilwood red egg (with significant dye splotching) was
dipped in lard and the cover scratched off in the shape of a stripe around
the middle, following existing poor dye coverage.This egg was soaked in
white distilled vinegar overnight. The result was disappointing as the
dye came off in more or less random splotches: there may have not been
enough lard coating the egg.
One white egg was dipped in lard which was scratched off in the shape of
a cross; the egg was then soaked in red wine vinegar overnight. Some discoloration
appeared on the egg, and there was a perceptible color difference between
the parts scraped clean and those covered in lard.
A final white egg was dipped in lard, scratched with a cross, and soaked
in distilled white vinegar. The results were disappointing, there was not
any color difference
E. Results and Commentary
Experiments with different dyes proved that a variety of red and yellow
colors could be produced by medieval and Renaissance housewives using period
dyes. Viewing the results and keeping in mind the Renaissance fondness
for deep rich coloration, I suspect that brazilwood and/or logwood, onion
skins and turmeric (if available) might be the most popular dyestuffs--
these also produced the best evenness of color.
Researching the dyes for this experiment turned up a number of other
dyestuffs that I'm eager to try, and I'd also like to try to improve the
results with the dyes I've already used. Elderberries and alkanet were
duds as far as this experiment-- I'd like to try with other pots, other
supplies of dyestuff, and other water-- the water used here was tapwater
from Allentown PA. I was concerned about the excessive streaking and poor
dye uptake. I'd like to try better-quality eggs to see if the streaking
and patterning will be alleviated: organic and/or free range eggs might
have more period results. I wonder if the problem could be not enough calcium
in the eggshells. 'Pre-mordanting' by soaking the eggs in vinegar water
before dyeing instead of adding the vinegar to the dyebath would be another
experiment to try. Certain dyestuffs, saunders and alkanet, are more fat
and alcohol soluble than water soluble-- I would see if I got better results
with these dyes by adding wine or aqua vitae to the dyebath.
Since most Easter eggs are intended to be eaten, you have to have some
concern about toxicity of the dyes. Though in general the dyestuff doesn't
come in contact with the egg, there is some transferrence, especially when
the egg is boiled for some time, and if the egg is cracked.
Turmeric, saffron, onion skins, cabbage, elderberries, and saunders
can be considered safe, as they are foods and food-safe colorants. Logwood
extract is on the FDA's approved list, so logwood is also safe. Alkanet
can be hepatoxic in large quantities, but was FDA approved for coloring
sausage skins in 1999, so it is probably safe on eggs as long as you're
not eating alkanet colored eggs every day for months! According to the
PDR for herbal medicine, madder contains lucidin, which may be "mutagenic
and carcinogenic", alkanet also contains components which may be hepatoxic
and carcinogenic (based on the structure of the chemicals, not recorded
instances of toxicity). Bedstraw, however, is not considered a risk at
I would have to say that for eggs intended for consumption, I'd stay with
food dyes (and logwood) until I know more. On the other hand, modern
people usually do not consume eggs used for egg games like egg rolling
and egg cracking contests, so other dyes could be used on eggs for those
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accessed March 20, 2002.
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viewed March 22, 2002.
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copyright 2002, Jennifer Heise.
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