Always interesting: Industrial design before anyone knew what industrial design was. One such example is this item by a Virginia-based inventor named Stuart Ellis, circa early 1900s. It’s a case of government policy changes unwittingly sparking creative design.
In early-20th-Century America, even if you weren’t a farmer, it was normal for you to have some food-producing animals around. A backyard chicken coop meant you’d have fresh eggs for breakfast. But animals get dirty, and in an era before Purell, people weren’t as concerned with cleanliness. By the 1910s, local governments like the one in Fredericksburg, Virginia, passed a law that banned the keeping of livestock within the town’s borders, for the sake of public health.
In a pre-supermarket, pre-automobile, pre-refrigeration era, this meant that if you lived in Fredericksburg—or any other of the municipalities that passed similar laws—you had to find something else to eat for breakfast.
This local government policy, combined with a more far-reaching national one—the expansion of a dedicated postal system that would ferry packages anywhere—meant that inventor Stuart Ellis was in the right place at the right time, with the right idea. Ellis knew people liked eating eggs, and that their source was taken away. He knew there were tons of farmers out in the countryside that had plenty of egg-producing capacity. And then he heard that the postal service was inaugurating a system of “parcel post,” where they could now load boxes, not just letters, onto trains and primitive trucks and get them anywhere.
Ellis created a row of six cylinders, comprised of stiff paper and bound together at the top and bottom edges by a metal lattice.
Then he created a series of metal boxes whose width fit these six-unit matrices perfectly, and whose height and depth varied to fit between two to twelve of these cylinder-units.
The cylinders were sized to fit eggs, of course, and “soft paper ruffles” were packed above and below each egg to protect them during the journey. He had placards illustrated and printed up with instructions of how to load and remove the eggs, and he placed these inside the box.
Now farmers could load up between one and six dozen eggs and ship them off to people several towns away. The crates and everything in them, of course, was reusable.
Ellis’ creation was a hit, and by 1913 he’d started up the Fredericksburg Metal Egg Crate Company. So why, you ask, have most of us never heard of the guy, or seen these things anywhere? Stay tuned for Part 2.