Compendiums:   When Egg Cups Met Toast Racks

Both of these useful table service pieces had been introduced in England long before the Regency. However, it was in our favorite decade that the two were combined to create an even more convenient breakfast serving dish. Made in a number of different materials, this new type of tableware could be found on a great many breakfast tables and sideboards across Britain nearly every morning during the Regency.

Of these two different pieces of tableware, egg cups came first, and have been known since ancient times. In fact, a lovely silver egg cup was found in the ruins of the Ancient Roman city of Pompeii. The Romans are known to have regularly eaten a morning meal comparable to our modern breakfast, usually including eggs. However, that early-day meal went out of fashion after the fall of the Roman Empire. In Medieval Europe, most people ate only two meals a day. The first was the larger meal, typically known as dinner in England, which usually included meats, eggs, fruits, vegetables and baked goods. The second, smaller, meal, typically known as supper, was taken later in the day and generally included whatever was leftover from that day’s dinner.

By the early seventeenth century, dinnertime in Britain had slipped to much later in the day. But many people, especially children, the elderly and manual laborers, required nourishment soon after rising. It was then that the meal of breakfast began to emerge in Britain. And, in 1620, the English physician, Tobias Venner, published Via Recta ad Vitam Longam, a medical book in which he recommended including eggs in a healthy breakfast. At about that same time, it was becoming more and more common for people to keep a few chickens, giving them regular access to fresh eggs. Gradually, the practice of eating eggs for breakfast caught on. By the turn of the eighteenth century, many people ate breakfast and many of them included eggs as a regular part of their morning meal. In England, one of the most popular egg dishes served at breakfast was soft-boiled eggs. And soft-boiled eggs were usually served in egg cups.

At its simplest, an egg cup is a small, concave vessel in which to serve an egg that has been cooked in the shell, while it is still hot. This serving dish holds the egg upright so that its top can be efficiently removed. The egg can then be easily eaten with a spoon, with little mess, or burned fingers. By the turn of the nineteenth century, egg cups were made of wood, stoneware, porcelain, glass, pewter, silver and even gold. Some were designed with flat bottoms, while many more were made with a base or pedestal. The addition of a pedestal, often called a footie today, increased the height and stability of the egg cup, making it more convenient to use. It also increased the surface area available for decoration, which had become quite popular on most of the better egg cups. Some of the best breakfast services actually included egg cups which were made to match the rest of the service. Of course, there were also many simple, humble and inexpensive egg cups which could be found on the breakfast tables of those in Britain who lived on a limited income.

There is no doubt that the consumption of eggs predates that of toast, primarily because eggs are naturally produced and thus have been available long before humans even walked this planet. Toast is made from bread. And bread, though a very early foodstuff, it is a man-made product. Nevertheless, it is believed to be one of the earliest and most popular food staples in most cultures around the world. The Ancient Egyptians are credited with the invention of leavened bread. And it is likely that it was not long after the first bread was made that someone got the idea of exposing pieces of it to heat. Perhaps that was done originally to re-warm it. It might also have been done to mask the fact that it had become stale by browning it with heat. Regardless of the original motivation, toasted bread was made and enjoyed across Europe, with the first reference to that fact appearing in print in 1430. Curiously, for some centuries after that, "toast" was considered to be a useful means by which to flavor drinks. Spiced toast was plunged into a warm alcoholic beverage, and allowed to soak in it until the flavor was transferred to the beverage. Some people left the soggy toast in their drink as a thickener, while others discarded it before drinking. It seems that much of that discarded soggy toast was happily eaten by the servants.

Even before the turn of the eighteenth century, toast was becoming another favorite part of breakfast for many of the affluent in Britain. Initially, toast was eaten dry, though, in time, some people did spread a bit of butter on their toast. It turned out that most people did not like soggy toast, which was the result of letting multiple slices of hot toast come into contact with one another. The steam vapor which was generated as the bread toasted would cause the slices to become soggy if they were pressed together after they were removed from the heat. By 1770, a solution for this problem has been found in England, when the toast rack was invented. The toast rack was a simple, but elegant solution to the problem. It was a serving piece which consisted of a base or tray, over which arched a series of dividers or vertical partitions which separated each slice of toast, holding them upright and separate from one another so they remained dry and crisp. The number of dividers or partitions in most toast racks typically ranged from four to eight.

The first toast racks were made of metal, most often silver, though it was not long before toast racks were made of pewter and other less costly metals as well. The first toast racks had dividers made of curved hoops of wire attached to the base, but as the eighteenth century came to an end, the dividers became flat and a bit wider. They were also no longer made in a simple hoop shape, but might be square or triangular. Some metal toast racks had small handles at each end of the tray, while others had a ring attached over the center of the rack to make them easy to carry or to pass around the table. By the turn of the nineteenth century, toast racks had become very popular and they were being made of stoneware, bone china and even porcelain, in addition to metals. In fact, ceramic toast racks were often made as part of an upper-class breakfast service, right along with egg cups.

Even before the eighteenth century came to an end, butter was no longer the only spread applied to toast at breakfast time in English homes. Quite a lot of people had begun spreading their breakfast toast with marmalades, preserves, jams or jellies. But it was only a matter of time before people began to dip their breakfast toast into their soft-boiled eggs. And most found the combination so delicious that they began to do it regularly. In fact, by the turn of the nineteenth century, in many upper-class homes, soft-boiled eggs were regularly served at breakfast accompanied by a few slices of toast. Is it any wonder, therefore, that at least one of the artisans or craftsmen who made their living by providing tableware to the upper classes saw an opportunity to produce yet another specialized item of tableware for a complete breakfast service?

The first known egg cup and toast rack combination has been dated to 1812. It is an elegant serving piece in which four flint glass egg cups are set into a silver wire frame that includes dividers for four slices of toast. In addition, this piece is fitted with a small glass pepper caster with a silver top. It was not long before potters, glass-blowers, metal-workers and silversmiths were all making egg cup/toast rack combinations. Some were made of one material, but many others, like the first one, were made of a combination of two or three different materials. Quite a number of early egg cup/toast racks combinations had four egg cups and space for four slices of toast, while many others had only two egg cups and two toast racks. Particularly in the country, some people, primarily men, would easily devour four eggs and four slices of toast for breakfast. But it is also possible that those larger egg cup/toast racks were intended to serve two, or even four, people who were light eaters. Some of these pieces were made with three egg cups and toast racks. They were intended for married couples, as it was assumed the husband would eat two eggs while the wife would eat only one. Many of these Regency-era egg cup/toast rack pieces were also made with matching spoons, and/or a small salt or pepper casters, or both. Therefore, many three-egg cup pieces were often equipped with only two spoons. These egg and toast service piece were often known as compendiums.

The breakfast tradition of the English gentry, in which the servants place all the dishes on the sideboard in the dining room appears to have become fully developed during the Victorian era. During the Regency, it appears that certain dishes, usually those which were intended to be eaten hot, were served at the table. Therefore, those who chose to have soft-boiled eggs and toast for breakfast generally had their meal placed before them as soon as it was brought from the kitchen. By the second half of the Regency, when egg cup/toast rack compendiums became popular, they were used to serve breakfast to one person or more. An egg cup/toast rack serving piece was set before one person, or between two lighter eaters who would share the eggs and toast in the serving piece. Other breakfast dishes were still usually laid out on the sideboard by the servants so that people could help themselves, particularly if there were a lot of people having breakfast on a given morning, such as a hunt breakfast.

[Author’s Note:   Today, in Britain, and several of her former colonies, one of the most popular breakfasts, especially for children, is soft-boiled eggs accompanied by "soldiers." These soldiers are not military men, they are strips of toast, cut so that they can be easily dipped into a warm soft-boiled egg. Though toast dipped into soft-boiled eggs has been enjoyed in Britain for centuries, it was not until the 1960s that toast strips came to be known as "soldiers" So, Dear Regency Authors, for those of you who enjoy eggs and soldiers today, please be aware that you cannot share them with the characters in your Regency romances, since that delicious and nourishing meal was not yet known by that name.]

Dear Regency Authors, might an egg cup/toast rack table service piece or two make an appearance in one of your upcoming romances? Perhaps one of the characters in your story runs a pottery or glass works and is counting on their new egg cup/toast rack designs to help increase sales. Or, might such a serving piece cause some friction between a couple of characters, maybe even the heroine and the hero. What would happen if the two were sitting side by side at the breakfast table, and a four egg cup/toast rack compendium is set between them? Will the hero eat up all of the eggs and toast before his neighbor at table has a chance to have her breakfast, or will it happen the other way around? Will that turn out to be a significant event in their budding relationship? Then again, perhaps one or more of your characters is shopping in a china or glass ware room, specifically looking for some egg and toast compendiums to match their breakfast service. What else might happen during that scene? Are there other ways in which a romance might be nourished, or broken, by an egg and toast compendium?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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One Response to Compendiums:   When Egg Cups Met Toast Racks

  1. gordon759 says:

    I have two egg cups (not egg cup combinations) of the early nineteenth century that might well act as props in a story. They are carved from alabaster and each has a text painted on them, enclosed in a floral wreath. One says ‘A Present from Margate’, the other ‘A Trifle from Clifton’. Margate was, and is, a seaside resort in Kent, Clifton is a fashionable suburb of Bristol immediately above the Hotwells where Catherine Morland didn’t go in Northanger Abbey. They were tourist souvenirs.

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