The Pennsylvania German tradition known as oier gritzel, or egg scratching, created colorful Easter eggs from chicken, goose or duck eggs. Each member of the family would receive a decorated egg to mark the holiday.
This decorated egg is dated “April 16, 1790” and marked “MH,” most likely the initials of the person the artist wanted to commemorate. The opposite side of the egg includes a memorial, a common motif used in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when honoring a loved one.
Before food coloring and store-bought egg dye kits, Easter eggs were dyed with natural materials such as onion skins, walnut shells, coffee and hickory bark. The eggs were usually hardboiled in the dye, with the contents eventually drying out over time. Sometimes, as is the case with our example, the contents of the egg were blown out through a small hole before the dying process. Later, the decorator used a sharp object, such as a hatpin, to scratch away the dyed surface to create a white design on the shell.
Submitted as this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure by CAP curators Amy Frey and Rachel Lovelace-Portal, this particular egg was purchased by the State Museum of Pennsylvania from the estate of Earl and Ada Robacker, two prominent collectors of Pennsylvania German cultural objects. The Robackers were also involved with the Kutztown Folk Festival and wrote many books and articles about Pennsylvania German art and material culture. Unfortunately, the Robackers either didn’t know or document who “MH” might have been or where the egg originated. We can only assume that they acquired the egg as an exquisite example of oier gritzele and the Pennsylvania German aesthetic.
About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.