In the last quarter of the 19th century the harbours of Charlottetown and Summerside were busy places and the Island was famed for its exports. Oats, potatoes and lobsters were moved across the wharves to waiting sailing and steam vessels, especially the regular steamers of the P.E.I. Steam Navigation Company. The biggest bulk crop was oats, necessary for the horse-driven cities of Canada and New England. Potatoes were also shipped in bulk but they, like the oats were just as liable to be moved on slower-moving schooners and barks.
But beginning in the mid 1860s the Island achieved fame for another commodity, an export market which had all but disappeared by the end of the century. This posting provides some research observations about one of the Island’s most forgotten export products – the humble hen’s egg.
In June 1873, on the eve of Confederation, a correspondent for the New York Herald wrote from Summerside. “The excitement over the confederation scheme, by which this great egg-laying country becomes part of the New Dominion, has at length subsided…” The Island over the years has had many nicknames but describing it as the “great egg-laying country” seems strange however it appears to have been a phrase which would readily identify the area in the minds of the Herald’s readers. In reading further in the historical record a forgotten chapter in the province’s agricultural history emerges.
Prior to the 1860s any egg production in the colony was purely a domestic market. The difficulties of both internal and external transportation mitigated against fragile commodities such as eggs. Transportation to any export markets was difficult. Only a few scattered references are made to egg shipments by sailing vessels and these are almost all small quantities and to destinations within the region. Although there had been steam packet services across Northumberland Strait since the 1830s the connections were mostly to Pictou and Shediac which were only poorly connected to other centres by difficult roads.
That began to change early in the decade with establishment of regular steamer and rail services between P.E.I. and New England. In 1860 the European and North American Railroad through southern New Brunswick linked Shediac with Saint John and its steamer connections to New England. The line was later extended to lines in Maine and by 1872 It was possible to ship from Shediac to Boston by rail. In Nova Scotia the colonial railway reached Pictou Landing in 1867 and it became possible to go from Prince Edward Island to Halifax in a single day. From there it was an overnight steamer trip to Boston. The most important change took place in 1864 with the introduction of a direct steamer from Charlottetown to Boston. Originally operated by the Boston and Colonial Steamship line what became known as the “Boston Boat” created a weekly (and sometimes more frequent) service, which lasted until 1915.
Internally, the opening of the Prince Edward Island Railway in 1874 provided local access to faster and better shipping from the ports of Charlottetown and Summerside. While a fleet of small schooners and brigs were useful for shipping bulk cargo such as oats and produce, it was ill equipped to deal with perishable and fragile goods such as fish and eggs.
In 1863 $8,980 worth of eggs were shipped to the United States from the Island. Within four years this had grown to $24,000 worth of eggs in spite of the fact that there was a 10 per cent tariff on eggs. By 1867 egg exports from Charlottetown alone had grown to 156,000 dozen, almost all bound for the Boston market. Many went by the Boston and Colonial steamers but most were sent by rail via New Brunswick. A year later advertisements began to appear offering cash for eggs to meet the growing market. In 1874 the New England Farmer noted that eggs from Prince Edward Island weighed thirty per cent more than other eggs. The following year the Boston Globe reported that a recent steamer cargo included five million eggs from Prince Edward Island in a single shipment.
Packaging for the shipping of eggs took many forms. Egg cases carried 49 dozen, boxes contained 100 dozen and barrels contained 79 dozen. While eggs from Prince Edward Island used all three forms, barrels using oats as the packing material may have been the most common. Local egg merchants received, graded, and packed eggs from area farmers. Containers would be loaded onto railway cars for transit to Charlottetown and Summerside. They would then need to be loaded onto ships. Summerside shipments had to be off-loaded at Shediac and into railcars. As several rail lines were needed to get to Boston, in some cases the eggs might be handled again if the cars did not go the whole distance. At Charlottetown almost all of the shipments were direct to Boston on the Boston Boat and had to be transhipped less often. The Boston and Colonial line realized at an early date that eggs were a significant export commodity and by 1878 were noting in their advertising that “Eggs in boxes and barrels handled with the greatest care.”
In 1878 the Boston market handled over 5.5 million dozen or in excess of 66,000,000 eggs. Eggs from Prince Edward Island, although available only from April to November represented 17 per cent of the total supply or almost 1,000,000 dozen eggs. Shipments from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were so few that they were not even mentioned in the accounts.
The prices paid for eggs and other produce on the Boston Market was a regular feature of Island newspapers by 1881 enabling egg producers to have a better appreciation of the valuation. By the 1882 season wholesalers were advertising in Island papers seeking stock. J.M. Auld (highest prices paid for large and small lots) told producers “Two Thousand a Day Wanted this Season” while Arthur & Toombs advertised “500,000 Dozen wanted this season.”
However the egg rush did not continue indefinitely. Protectionism in the United States was ushered in by the McKinley Tariff in 1890. In 1889 David Laird, speaking on the threat posed by tariff proposals noted “At the present time the owners of hens are in a dilemma with regard to the proposed duty of five cents a dozen on eggs by the American Congress, and many a young and old woman in the country would sleep more soundly if they were assured that this duty would not be imposed.” The previous year the Island had shipped 2,148,000 dozen eggs valued at $309,000, an amount exceeding the province’s expenditure on education.
The damage to the export egg trade was significant. In 1890 the year the Tariff was first introduced the egg exports to the United States from Canada were 12,800,000 dozen, a value of 1.8 million dollars. By 1897 the number had shrunk to 479,000 dozen, giving less than $50,000. Efforts to shift the production to the markets in Great Britain had seen limited success. In 1890 only $860 (dollars, not thousands) worth of eggs had been sent across the Atlantic. By 1897 the annual egg exports to the United Kingdom were still less than 7,000,000 dozen bringing in $924,000. It appears that the majority of these shipments were made by producers in Ontario and Quebec. There is no evidence that Island henneries played the same role in the trans-Atlantic shipping that they had in the New England market which appears to have gradually withered. Protectionism had allowed American producers to re-capture their domestic markets and without the ability to send eggs elsewhere the production on Prince Edward Island returned to serving domestic needs. By 1900 the great Boston egg boom was over. However the industry slowly rebuilt and by 1929 some 1.3 million dozen eggs were being produced, mostly through co-operative associations. and put on the market in neighbouring provinces, Quebec and New England.
A more detailed draft paper on the Boston egg exports along with source notes for this blog posting can be found here.