Drawing of Easter Bunny with basket of eggs, attributed to Conrad Gilbert, Berks County, Pennsylvania, 1800. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle. 2011.10.

The Easter Bunny and a Decorated Egg: Two Rare Early American Treasures

March 28–April 28, 2014

Many of the most beloved American holiday traditions have their roots in southeastern Pennsylvania where German-speaking immigrants introduced customs such as the Easter Bunny and decorated Easter eggs, along with the Christmas tree.

Few decorated Easter eggs from the 1700s or 1800s remain today due to their extreme fragility. Winterthur was fortunate enough to receive an outstanding example of one this year, donated by Jane and Gerald Katcher, to accompany the Easter Bunny fraktur that was added to the collection last year. This rare surviving egg is decorated with hearts and flowers as well as a decanter, two wineglasses, and a tumbler. The egg—most likely from a goose—is also inscribed with an abbreviated name “Jno Robt Brs” and the date 1850.

By the early 1800s, many Pennsylvania Germans included decorated eggs as part of their Easter celebrations.

Children were taught to prepare nests for the Easter Bunny who would lay colorful eggs during the night provided the children were well behaved. The eggs were typically dyed by simmering them in water with onion skins, which imparted a reddish-brown color. Additional colors were achieved with madder root, walnut hulls, hickory bark, and other materials. Most of the eggs were eaten over the holiday, but some were embellished with scratched decoration that was done with a sharp pin or knife in which designs, names, and dates were scratched through the dyed outer coating to reveal the white eggshell underneath. The decorated eggs were then exchanged as gifts.

The decorated egg joins a fraktur drawing of the Easter Bunny, which is one of the earliest known American renderings of the subject. This delightful image is attributed to schoolmaster Johann Conrad Gilbert (1734–1812), who emigrated from Germany in 1757 and settled in southeastern Pennsylvania.

According to Lisa Minardi, assistant curator at Winterthur and an expert on Pennsylvania German arts and culture, “The Easter Bunny fraktur and egg are extremely rare and important additions to the Winterthur collection. The fraktur, as one of the two earliest known depictions of the Easter Bunny in America, represents the very roots of this beloved holiday tradition, while the survival of the egg in such good condition is simply extraordinary. We are very grateful to the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle and the Katchers for their generosity in supporting these acquisitions.” 

Both are on display in the Paintings Gallery.

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