What Does a Water Glass Have to Do with the Storage of Eggs?
by G.D. Palmer
If you were to ask the above question the answer would be, "Absolutely nothing." If, however, you were to rephrase that question only slightly, removing the "a" and asking, "What does Water Glass have to do with the storage of eggs?" the answer would be entirely different.
In this case "water glass" does not refer to a tumbler of water, so remove from your mind that image of an egg inserted into a glass of cold water. Water was involved, but it was only as a medium into which a chemical could be mixed. "Water Glass" was that chemical. Popular in the days of pre-refrigeration, it provided a very practical food storage tool.
The Reliance Ink Company of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada was one of a number of firms that made Water Glass commercially available. Normally sold in small cans, it was designed specifically for the storage of eggs. Instructions, as imprinted on the one pound tin, were simple.
Thoroughly dissolve 1 pound of Reliance Water Glass in 1 gallon of water.
Fill receptacle about one-third full of the above solution, and put in clean fresh eggs as they are collected. Never use cracked or broken eggs.
The receptacle used should be wooden, crockey, or enamel, as iron or tin will rust. Always keep it well covered.
If some of the liquid evaporates, add water as necessary, always mixing well. The eggs should at all times be well covered with the solution.
If warm water is used to assist in mixing the Water Glass, it should be allowed to become cold before using.
The end result was a solution in which eggs would effectively have their pores sealed, thereby sealing out oxygen and moisture. The lack of oxygen inhibited bacterial growth, preventing spoiling. It was said that "fresh" eggs could be kept up to two years.
It might be asked why anyone would want to keep eggs for up to two years. Well, most didn't. Six months to a year, however, was a practical option. In the days before large flocks and artificially enhanced daylight hours, hens tended to lay more eggs during the longer days of summer. With the arrival of winter and its shorter days egg laying would often significantly decrease. A ready supply of stored, fresh eggs would then come in most handy. It would also protect from the higher prices that would often accompany decreased availability.
There were some drawbacks. The Reliance Company, for instance, warned its customers that "when eggs have been preserved for a long time in Water Glass their shells become somewhat brittle and non-porous, and when put in boiling water are likely to crack." It was recommended that users prick the eggs with a pin prior to the boiling so as to allow expanding air to escape. As well, as they aged, whites became thinner and yolks more delicate. In practical terms, that meant that where once the eggs could be used for any usage including poaching, soft boiling, and frying, by the end of their storage life recommended usage was limited to scrambling, custards and "general cookery."
Water Glass is the trade name of sodium silicate. It is said to still be available through druggists or poultry supply stores, but its use is certainly not as widespread as it once was.