Monday, January 16, 2017

The Egg and I

QUESTION: On a trip to England several years ago, I discovered the joys of eating a soft-boiled egg for breakfast. Of course, the waitress served my egg standing straight up in an egg cup. I became fascinated by these unique little pedestals and purchased several to take home as souvenirs of my trip. After I got home, I started to notice them at flea markets, so I began to buy more. Now I have over 50 of them. How did the egg cup come to be? Who invented it? And why isn’t it used widely here in the U.S.?

ANSWER: While Americans aren’t as keen on eating soft-boiled eggs as their British counterparts, egg cups have won the hearts of many collectors.

Egg cups come in many types, styles and categories, from delicate hand-painted works of art to outrageous caricatures made to represent everything from members of the British royal family to current cartoon characters. Manufacturers use many different materials to produce egg cups, including glass, wood, stone and even plastic.

Egg cups have been used in British cultures for centuries. Though people commonly refer to them as egg cups, they can also be called egg holders. Either way, they’re shallow dishes designed to hold a boiled egg in its shell. Wealthy persons living along the East Coast of the U.S. used them until the mid-1960s, essentially imitating the breakfast habits of their British cousins. But their use never really caught on with the middle class, who instead discovered prepared foods.

Historians believe the Romans were using egg cups before 79 A.D. Clearly, eggs cooked in the shell can be unmanageable without a small receptacle to hold them in place.

The most common egg cup, designed to hold a single egg, is called a single. Less common are doubles. Doubles have a cup on either end, a small one to hold a single egg, or if user turns up the larger end, it will hold one or more eggs out of the shell or the egg of a larger bird such as a duck or goose. There are also bucket egg cups, which  have no pedestal, “Hoop” egg cups resemble napkin rings and can be “straight” or “waisted.” Americans often mistaken them for wide napkin rings. Side-by-side doubles and flat oval egg cups, designed to hold an egg lying on its side and used more often for hard boiled eggs, can be more difficult to find. Egg cups can also come in sets of four to as many as a dozen, on a single matching serving piece for family use. Some egg cups include a spoon and/or a small scissors, often referred to as an egg decapitator.

In Britain and many European countries egg cups are still a standard part of a place setting of china. Since they’re still used in the average home, the easier to find. And since they’re used widely, egg cups from most of the major makers, such as Goebel in Germany, Carlton Ware, Staffordshire, Adams and numerous others in England, are readily available.

Figural egg cups, featuring cartoon character, such as Bugs Bunny, Sylvester, and Tweety Bird, are popular with collectors. Other categories include commemorative, political, advertising, holiday, caricatures, transportation, children's, and black memorabilia.  Any of these categories may be made from glass, porcelain, pottery or ceramic. Metals used for egg cup production include gold, silver, copper and pewter. Stone such as marble and many varieties of woods also may be used to produce egg cups.

Egg cup collectors, called pocillovists, must do their homework in order to know what’s available and to watch out for misrepresentation. Because egg cups aren’t an everyday item in the American household, many sellers who acquire eggcups from estates or family sales don’t know what they have and will misrepresent them as something else such as an open salt cellar. Sellers will occasionally misrepresent a common egg cup as something more rare. Serious egg cup collectors agree that chips, cracks, or other flaws are not acceptable.

The Internet has made egg tugs readily available to collectors and is responsible to some degree for the blossoming interest in the United States. However, prices tend to go up and down. Common egg cups can sell for less than a dollar while rarer ones can cost in the hundreds of dollars.

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