Follow the Stories | Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (2007)
A Cabinet Full of Eggs?
This cabinet, made to store and protect valuable spices, was crafted in the 1760s.
Leslie Keno was surprised to find a collection of small bird eggs was stashed in the top drawer of the cabinet.
A 19th-century oologist made a list of the bird species associated with each egg.
This was not your standard carton of eggs. At the Philadelphia ANTIQUES ROADSHOW in August 2006, a woman showed appraiser Leslie Keno, a Pennsylvania spice cabinet made in the 1760s. When Leslie opened the top drawer, he discovered a classic 19th-century collection: a few dozen bird eggs nestled in cotton-bottomed cubbies.
"It was a neat surprise," Leslie said recently. "The whole idea of a specimen box goes back to the 16th or 17th century. I think of the Dutch old master paintings with all those bones, or shells, or other natural objects." Finding such a collection intact today, he said, doesn't happen too often, adding, "I can't remember coming across something like this."
Eggs from a Bygone Era
Leslie points out that the eggs were stored in the cabinet with an accompanying journal, yellowed and crumbling. The journal listed the bird species the eggs belonged to, including a ruffed grouse, a bluebird, a turkey, and a crow's egg. The journal writer was a Mr. Forsyte, who was the headmaster of a private Quaker School in Chester County. "This is dated 1876," Leslie said of the journal's egg list. "And collecting specimen eggs was a very popular hobby in the 19th century. Many prominent Americans were collectors, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Since eggs weren't protected back then, they could be bought, sold, and traded."
How does a 19th-century egg collection affect the value of an 18th-century spice cabinet?
American Egg Collecting
The hobby, which caught on in England and was picked up by Americans in the late 1800s, was practiced by people called "eggers." These collectors would often take an entire clutch of eggs for their collections, believing that if they did so the birds would then lay another clutch of eggs to replace it, which was not always the case. The collector would drill holes in the eggs to blow the contents out so they didn't rot.
If collectors couldn't find an egg of a particular species themselves, they would often buy it. One magazine, Taylor's Standard American Egg Catalogue, published in the early 1900s, included an egg price list. The common blue jay egg sold for 10 cents. A less common bald eagle egg sold for $8, and an egg from the California condor, practically exotic, sold for $350. Such high prices undoubtedly led to the collection of eggs of endangered bird species. In his book Birds Over America, the bird illustrator Roger Tory Peterson mentioned an oologist who had gathered 700 peregrine falcon eggs.
Environmentalism and the End of Egg Collecting
The hobby began to lose fans with the advent of the environmentalist movement in the early 20th century. Women opposed to the use of feathers in hats organized Audubon Societies, and then in 1918, landmark federal environmental legislation called the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed. The law protected migratory birds by forbidding the buying and selling of their feathers and eggs, restrictions that still apply. Incidentally, the old eggs that survived from these collections did come in handy in the 1960s, when the thickness of their shells was compared with shells that had been thinned by the use of the synthetic insecticide DDT, which was subsequently banned.
Do the Eggs Add Value?
But the question remains: Did the egg collection add to the value of this particular Philadelphia spice cabinet, which Leslie estimated to have an auction value of between $25,000 and $30,000? If it does increase the cabinet's worth, Leslie says, it's not because the eggs themselves have any value — it would be illegal to sell them. But, Leslie notes, the eggs and the accompanying journal by the former headmaster do add a strong provenance to the piece, which might give it cachet if it ever comes up for auction.
"The eggs add to the piece's personality," Leslie says. "They tell us a little bit more about a former owner."
But there is a larger lesson here as well, Leslie believes. "The story shows that not all collecting categories have a long shelf life," he says. "Egg collecting came to a quick and abrupt end. It's a warning, too, not to get into collecting areas that involve endangered or rare animals. You have to be careful about collecting anything to do with wildlife."
See the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (2007) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
Some information for this article, including the price list of eggs, was taken from the article "Ralph's Talking Eggs," by Carrol Henderson, published in the October 2005 issue of the magazine Birder's World. It can be accessed online at the Web site birdersworld.com.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Furniture category:
A Match Made in Heaven (Or at Least New York) (Milwaukee, 2007)
Elk Antler ... and a Little Bit of Moose (Omaha, 2005)
A True Roux? (Reno, 2005)
Getting Your Furniture on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW (Providence, 2006)
Honestly Abe's Chairs? (Mobile, 2007)
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.