Originally, the Persians and then the ancient Egyptians, exchanged colored eggs to celebrate the return of spring. They also used those decorated eggs as tokens of goodwill. The eggs were often colored a bright red to signify blood and the life force.
Later, the Greeks adopted the custom and used colored eggs during their spring festivals as a sign of fertility and of the regenerative power of nature. During Cleopatra’s rein, around 50 B.C., Egyptians and Romans colored eggs as part of their spring festivals.
The custom started disappearing in Europe when the Pennsylvania Dutch brought it to the New World in the 1700s. But the tradition didn’t catch on right away. By 1880, the Pennsylvania Dutch and the Ukranians were the only ethnic groups in this country who, in any real number, still observed this quaint festivity.
Because egg dying was a time-consuming practice back then, many people didn’t have the time or resources to participate in the tradition. Unlike today, most Easter eggs were colored by boiling them with onions skins for a yellow color, hickory bark for shades of brown, madder root for red and other materials such as coffee, walnut hulls, green wheat and beets for varying colors. Dyes such as indigo, logwood, and gamboges were also used, but you had to go out and buy these dyes.
William M. Townley, a druggist at a New Jersey store, sold the dyes. One year, Townley came up with the idea of packaging his dyes, after he spilled some powdered indigo on a suit and ruined it. After that incident, he had his shop boy take the dyes to the backyard of the shop and measure and prepackage the various dyes used for Easter eggs.
This made coloring eggs easier and more convenient, and also helped renew this custom which is still observed today.