Have you ever heard the phrase “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”? It suggests that someone not put all of her faith or effort in one way of doing things. In the early twentieth century this bit of wisdom was actually taken quite literally. The

Egg Carrier, 1880-1889, wood and metal, 9×6.75. The Farmers’ Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Clara and Lee Matteson, F0027.1986, Photograph by Sammy Smithson.

women of the farm would collect the eggs from the chicken coop each day, stack them in tall wire baskets, and then load them up into the horse-drawn wagon to take them to the town market. The trek to town in a wire basket could break and damage many of the fragile eggs and that just was not something that most families could afford. It was the woman’s responsibility to assure that the daily needs of the house were met. Egg money was especially important for farm families because whatever they made at the market from sales was what they could spend on groceries and fabric for clothing. [1]

In the early 1900’s, disease brought the chicken mortality rate up to forty percent, and most hens were only laying approximately 150 eggs each year. [2] A farm wife could produce the most desirable eggs in the county, but if the fragile product could not survive the trek by wagon to town, then that farmer’s whole livelihood was at stake. This 1890s egg carrier’s wooden exterior provided a sturdy and attractive casing that was easy to pack. The slats allowed the eggs to stay cool while the springs were installed to protect each individual egg from the jostling that it would experience in travel. Such care was taken for every single egg because every single egg determined what the family could buy at the store that week.

Egg Carrier, 1880-1889, wood and metal, 9×6.75. The Farmers’ Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Clara and Lee Matteson, F0027.1986, Photograph by Sammy Smithson.

The late 1800’s and early 1900’s was the time of the “New Woman”; women were beginning to take pride in their contributions to society and their work in the domestic field. Some were even venturing out of the home for work and money. Rose C. Trimble of the Williamson Institute wrote in 1898, “[The New Woman] is not an instantaneous creation or fungous growth upon the old order… She understands physiology and hygiene and chemistry.” [3] During this time the patent office saw many farmers and entrepreneurs trying out different packaging techniques to assure that eggs were reaching the market in a safe and attractive fashion. This particular “Common Sense Egg Carrier” patent was applied for by G.M. Miles in Buffalo, New York. Now, while G.M. could be a man or a woman, only .8 percent of all patents in the United States were given to women inventors in 1910. [4] Since women were the experts on eggs and their packaging, could this patent have been filed by a “Genevieve” or “Gertrude”? Could a husband have applied for a patent on behalf of his wife to increase its chances of being accepted? How many inventions were actually female-made but got male credit?

Sammy Smithson, Cooperstown Graduate Program

[1] University of Northern Iowa. “Iowa Farm Women.” Accessed Oct 2, 2015. http://www.uni.edu/iowaonline/prairievoices/images/Iowa_Farm_Women_1.pdf.

[2] American Egg Board. “History of Egg Production.” Accessed Oct 2, 2015. http://www.aeb.org/farmers-and-marketers/history-of-egg-production.

[3] Trimble, Rose C. “Woman and Her Work.” Annual Report of the New York State Agricultural Society 57(1898): 334. Accessed Oct 7, 2015.

[4] Frey, Thomas. “A Study of Women Inventors.” Futurist Speaker. Accessed Oct 5, 2015. http://www.futuristspeaker.com/2008/08/a-study-of-women-inventors/.