Eggs dyed with period dyestuffs

A project originally entered in Northern Lights Pentathalon

Jadwiga Zajaczkowa

The eggs as they were entered in the Pent:

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.
  1. Solid Color Dyed Eggs in period: Documentation
  2. Pattern Decoration of dyed eggs
  3. Dye Documentation
  4. My Dye Techniques
  5. Results and Commentary
  6. Bibliography
  1. Turmeric
  2. Onion Skin
  3. Cochineal
  4. Saffron
  5. Red Cabbage
  6. Madder
  1. Elderberry with vinegar
  2. Logwood
  3. Soaked in Onion skin
  4. Bedstraw
  5. Alkanet
  6. Brazilwood
  7. Saunders
  8. Alkanet
Lower Left: coated in tumeric mud Upper right: 2 soaked in Saffron, one bedstraw

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 inside). "

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

Red Dyes

  1. Saunders (Red Sandalwood)

  2. 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
  3. Onion Skins

  4. 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.
  5. Brazilwood

  6. 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.
  7. Alkanet

  8. 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..." p. 44.
  9. Madder

  10. 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.
  11. Logwood

  12. 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."
  13. Cochineal

  14. 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.

Yellow Dyes

  1. Turmeric

  2. 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).
  3. Saffron

  4. 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.
  5. Onion Skin

  6. 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).
  7. Bedstraw

  8. 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 Paradisi in Sole) speak of it being used to rennet cheese, rather than for dyeing.

Blue/Green Dyes

  1. Red Cabbage

  2. 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 in period.
  3. Elderberry

  4. 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. 105.

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 brazilwood).

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.

Red Dyes

  1. Saunders:
  2. Onion Skins:
  3. Brazilwood
  4. Alkanet
  5. Madder
  6. Logwood
  7. Cochineal

Yellow Dyes

  1. Turmeric
  2. Saffron
  3. Onion Skins
  4. Bedstraw

Blue and Green Dyes

  1. Red Cabbage
  2. Elderberries

Decorated Eggs

 

It's not clear from Plat's recipe whether you start with a dyed egg, so I tried both dyed and undyed eggs.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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
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.

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.

Safety Note:

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 therapeutic dosages.

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 purposes.

F. Bibliography


copyright 2002, Jennifer Heise. For permission to reprint, email jahb@lehigh.edu