The Victorian Easter Bunny

“In Germany the children believe that the Easter hare places eggs and other presents in the baskets they leave outside the nursery on the eve of Easter.”  The Cornishman, 1892.

Easter Card circa 1908.(Image via New York Public Library)

Easter Card circa 1908.
(Image via New York Public Library)

Though the origin of Easter eggs and Easter bunnies can be traced back to ancient times, the Victorians did not begin to celebrate Easter in the way that we know now until the late 19th century.  It was then that Easter bunnies became fashionable.  Before the 1880s, however, it was in Germany—not in England or the United States—that children believed in the “Easter hare.”  As American author Linda Beard states in her 1893 book How to Amuse Yourself and Others:

“In Germany, too, we should find that children believe as sincerely in the Easter hare as they do in Santa Claus in our country; and the saying, that ‘the hares lay the Easter eggs,’ is never doubted by the little ones.”

Belief in the Easter bunny may have been a little slow in getting started in the United States and England, but by the 1890s, Beard reports that it was not uncommon to see an image of a “hare wheeling his barrowful of eggs” displayed in the confectioners’ window.  Easter eggs were dyed and decorated, and according to an April 1893 edition of the Tamworth Herald:

“…if you tell the nursery folk that an Easter-bunny brings the eggs and hides them in the garden or the nursery, where they may be hunted, you surround them with an air of special grace and favour.”

Easter Card, 19th Century.(Image via Santa Clara County Library)

Easter Card, 19th Century.
(Image via Santa Clara County Library)

Newspapers of the late 19th century featured advertisements for decorative Easter cards and Easter eggs made of every material one can imagine.  As the Tamworth Herald reports:

“There are eggs of polished and of inlaid wood; there is our old friend the satin-egg, hand-painted (would that it were not!), and embellished with cheap tinsel and cheaper lace; there is the egg of china and of glass, and, of course, there is the egg made of sugar or of chocolate which looks as if it might be good to eat.”

Easter Bunny Postcard circa 1915.

Easter Bunny Postcard circa 1915.

Perhaps the most unique variety of fashionable Easter egg in 1893 was the one made of plain, hinged wood that, when opened, revealed an interior bursting with rosebuds, violets, and other spring flowers.

For those of simpler taste—or more moderate means—plain eggs boiled and dyed were the most popular Easter eggs of all.  Onion peel added to boiling water would dye an egg terracotta brown.  A spoonful of aniline dye would tint an egg “a fashionable, but unbeautiful” magenta.  And if one wanted to dye their Easter eggs a “lovely ebony-black,” the Tamworth Herald advises boiling them in a mixture of young rye and water.

By 1897, commercial Easter egg dyes were also available.  In fact, Donnell Manufacturing, a St. Louis based company, was the first to capitalize on the German myth of the Easter hare by using colored lithographs of four white rabbits and eight colored Easter eggs to advertise their White Rabbit Easter Egg Dye—which included directions in both German and English.  Their idea caught on like wildfire and it wasn’t long before imitators sprang up throughout the country.

The Rabbit Woman, St. Nicholas Magazine, 1899.

The Rabbit Woman,
St. Nicholas Magazine, 1899.

Savvy marketing, like that employed by Donnell Manufacturing, was not the only influence on the rise in popularity of the Easter bunny.  By the end of the century, many German immigrants had brought the tale of the Easter hare along with them to their new homelands.  For example, an 1899 American magazine reports the story of Frau Zehner who was known as the “Rabbit Woman” of New York.  Zehner was a German born street peddler who made a tidy profit each Easter by selling “little bunnies” in every imaginable color.

By the turn of the century, confectioners were making chocolate bunnies and Easter cards were featuring rabbits on their covers.  Soon, images of rabbits at Easter were almost as common as images of Easter eggs themselves.

Today, the Easter bunny is an inextricable part of the Easter festivities in England and America.  In many ways, he is as much a holiday icon as Santa Claus.  Obviously he is not real, but as March 27 is Easter Sunday, I hope you do not mind that I have included him as part of my Animals in Literature and History series.  To those who celebrate it, I wish you all a very Happy Easter weekend with your family and friends, both human and animal.  As for myself, I will be spending Easter with my own family, complete with Easter eggs and Easter bunnies (of the chocolate variety!).

Easter Card circa 1909.( Image via New York Public Library)

Easter Card circa 1909.
( Image via New York Public Library)

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History.  If you are interested in helping a rabbit in need or would like to adopt a rabbit of your own, the following links may provide a starting point:

House Rabbit Society (United States)

Fat Fluffs Rabbit Rescue (United Kingdom)

*Author’s Note: Sunday is Easter and in some places this means baby bunnies, chicks, ducklings, and kittens will be sold or given away as Easter presents.  Baby animals are very cute and I understand the temptation to put one in a child’s Easter basket, however, I hope that before you do so you will first consider the long-term commitment to the baby animal’s health and welfare.  

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

“About Easter Eggs.”  The Tamworth Herald.  April 8, 1893.

Beard, Linda.  How to Amuse Yourself and Others.  New York: Scribner & Sons, 1893.

“The Hare and Easter.”  American Notes and Queries.  Volume 5.  Philadelphia: Westminster Publishing, 1890.

“Occasional Notes.”  The Cornishman.  June 30, 1892.

Williams, George.  “The Rabbit Woman.”  St. Nicholas Illustrated Magazine.  Vol. 26.  New York: MacMillan and Co., 1899.

“Special Notice to the Trade.”  National Druggist.  Vol. 27.  St. Louis: Druggist Publishing, 1897.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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24 thoughts on “The Victorian Easter Bunny

  1. suzanne bowditch says:

    Loved your article. We cannot own a rabbit here in QLD (the law forbids it) so we will content ourselves with the chocolate kind Happy Easter 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andrea Lithgow says:

    Another entertaining and informative animal article. I love all of your blog entries, but I’ve come to especially anticipate the Friday animal series. Thanks also for always including sound advice and links to animal adoptions.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. paper doll says:

    Amazing to see the start of these traditions…so we owe the Easter Bunny , like the Christmas tree, to German origins, and it has to be said, forest sensibilities.
    Because they seem to be about connecting or staying connected with nature

    Liked by 1 person

  4. igguhs says:

    In UK in 40s we’d collect gorse flowers (yellow) and use them to dye the eggs. I think everyone did that then, it was tradition. We thought colouring any other way was overwrought and ostentatious. And of course the best part were the chocolate eggs. Dark chocolate only. And eating till sick.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. igguhs says:

    And take note they are NOT bunnies, they are hares – Mad March Hares and many other associations with women, easter, birth etc etc I prefer Hares to bunnies – they’ve got more character.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lindsay Downs (@ldowns2966) says:

    Very interesting. I had always thought the Easter bunny (hare) came originally from England. No, you did not dash my belief in them but strengthened it. Even thought I’m old enough to know they aren’t real as a child I believed in them and Santa Claus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      When I was a child, I believed in the Easter bunny, too, Lindsay 🙂 And in many ways, I liked him more than Santa Claus precisely because the Easter bunny was an animal!

      Like

  7. authorangelabell says:

    “Perhaps the most unique variety of fashionable Easter egg in 1893 was the one made of plain, hinged wood that, when opened, revealed an interior bursting with rosebuds, violets, and other spring flowers.”

    This sounds absolutely stunning! I wonder if the flowers inside were real blooms or wooden ones carved from the same material as the egg by some skilled artisan. Either way, it would be lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      They were actually real flowers! There was a mechanism inside to fill with water so the flowers would last more than a day. I’m not entirely sure how the whole thing was accomplished–perhaps the florist bought the wooden eggs and then made them up with the flowers as the orders came in?

      Like

  8. igguhs says:

    Continuing on the Bunny (not Hare topic) here’s something that might interest – Bunnies/Rabbits were introduced to the UK it is said by the Normans (not the Romans). They were a prized food (their fur also appreciated) and ‘warrens’ were guarded closely by the lords of estates. Even in the 1600s a ‘bunny’ was NOT a cheap meal. And you’ll see quite a lot of references/images of warrens in Medieval Manuscripts showing pride of ownership…there’s more to it than that but amazing to know they are not indigenous to UK. Took the critters a while to acclimatise to our damp weather!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. igguhs says:

    Took me a while to dig it up after noticing how often images of rabbit warrens showed up in MSS. It’s one of those fabulous “Oh, by the way, did you know…” things one can drop into conversation to impress…or annoy!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Vickie says:

    There is nothing more exciting to a youngster than the Easter Egg hunt! Thank you for this lovely article on the Easter Bunny – I did not know the origin of the Easter Bunny before.
    As always you have educated and entertained us and promoted the welfare of our furry and feathered friends! Bless you and Happy Easter!

    Liked by 1 person

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