The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be, and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
Ecclesiastes said it best, but we still can’t help repeating ourselves.
Meandering through the supermarket with a knot in your stomach is nothing new, especially when you round the corner toward the refrigerated aisles. As you loiter among cheese, dairy, butter, eggs, and yogurts of precisely one million varieties, a shudder runs down your spine. No, it’s not the chill of climate-shredding refrigerants. It’s the visceral reaction to seeing the price tag beneath those unassuming grey cardboard crates.
Why are eggs so expensive?! You think while furiously shaking your fist at a confused stockboy and cursing the void. Fortune hunters in mid-1800s San Francisco thought the same thing during what’s now known as the Egg War, Egg Rush, and War of the Eggs. Strange bedfellows, indeed.
The Rush For Protein Riches
There was a time — a mere 175 years ago — when waves of Europeans had yet to overrun the great state of California. Travel north to the San Francisco Bay and you’d find more redwoods than people. Before the (first) Gold Rush of 1848, the once-sleepy locale was home to about 800 residents among ancient and incredible natural landscapes.
And what was hiding in that gorgeously preserved basin of old-world beauty? Yep, gold.
When James Wilson Marshall, a carpenter from New Jersey, found flakes of gold in the American River at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Coloma, word spread faster than a TikTok trend. This was in January of 1848. By 1850, the population skyrocketed from just under 1,000 to a whopping 20,000 people.
If you think a small, ramshackle townlet exploding with the force of an atomic bomb in barely two years is inconceivable, imagine it before modern plumbing.
Marshall later said of his discovery, “It made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold.” Little did he know, San Franciscans would soon be swimming in more problems (and human waste) than they’d ever thought possible — until the current day, of course.
I Love Goooooold
Thousands upon thousands of people descending upon barely-there infrastructure in such a short time is nothing short of cataclysmic. Demand for literally everything skyrocketed, and with it, their price tags.
Crude tent neighborhoods full of sweaty miners multiplied alongside brothels and casinos as the initial population boom included a staggering majority of men. Once an economy of hungry, tired, lonely fellas emerged, scores of people realized what — or who — the real goldmine was.
Case in point: One miner purportedly made a solid income when he came into possession of a women’s slipper, which he charged a lofty one dollar to his fellows for the simple privilege of touching it. (That’s around $35 in today’s money.) Hopefully, the ‘touching’ happened under supervision.
Less niche expenses were still, well, expensive, with food being the hottest commodity. Aside from well-established indigenous populations (who likely weren’t lining up to help), there hadn’t been anyone to create the sort of farming infrastructure the influx of miners required.
You can stretch food far, but expanding rations for a town that grew 25x its original size is simply not feasible without reinforcements. If you were peckish in early 1850s San Fran, you needed to pony up.
Craving a slice of bread? That’ll set you back a buck. Oh, you wanted it buttered? Double the cost. Do you spend your days burning countless calories mining valuable minerals and need to fuel up with a hearty breakfast? How do two servings of bread, butter, cheese, sardines, and beer for the modern equivalent of $1,200 sound?
Makes forking over a cool fifty for avocado toast and bottomless mimosas at brunch in 21st-century San Fran seem like a steal.
(Egg) War, What Is It Good For?
The humble egg is a near-perfect consumable — unless you hate them and therefore are worse than the monsters who claim they don’t like how water tastes.
Just kidding. It’s fine if you don’t like eggs, but even the most vociferous haters understand their value as a filling, portable protein source. Packed with nutrients ranging from vitamin A to selenium, eggies make a clutch addition to most meals. They’re also crucial for baking a dizzying array of sweet and savory dishes.
The first few thousand miners to arrive in Yerba Buena (the original name for the settlement that would later be dubbed San Francisco) promptly decimated the poultry population. Which, you’ll recall, was originally intended for about 800 people. No birds, no eggs, big problem.
So, why not import more birds from southern California or the Baja of Mexico, both of which had chicken farms? In the late 1800s, a sea voyage up the coast would have been feasible. Were chickens not strong enough to make the trip overland or by water? This is a mystery still being teased out by historians.
Eva Chrysanthe, an impressive artist and expert on the subject, believes establishing a thriving chicken population was hindered by a lack of feed. Folks would trawl through dumps for garbage to give their birds instead. Despite the wide range of foods chickens can and do enjoy, you can imagine munching stale bread, discarded candy, and rotting fruit and vegetable leftovers was not a diet on which to thrive.
Also not great for their health? The glaring absence of medical care and sanitation. Chrysanthe posits disease wiped out their small numbers swiftly and aggressively.
The Egg War Scramble
Whatever the reasons, chickens were persona non grata in the Bay Area for years after the first wave of men came through and digested them all overnight.
As with anything in short supply, hen eggs became an extremely hot commodity, with merchants importing them from as far as Chile. Prices rose to $1 per egg, which you’ll remember is closer to $35 in 2023.
It became increasingly clear that the new gold was eggs. But how to get them without connections or reliable transport and random bird diseases waiting in the wings? (Sorry.)
Click here for Part Two of The Egg War
Continue down the rabbit hole:
SFGate. 17 fascinating facts about the Farallon Islands, just off San Francisco’s shore but rarely visited.
Peixotto, Ernest. Romantic California.
Smithsonian. When California Went to War Over Eggs.
Time. The Worst That Can Happen When Egg Prices Get Too High.
LitHub. How a War Over Eggs Marked the Early History of San Francisco.
Crysanthe, Eva. Garibaldi and The Farallon Egg War.
Behind the Bastards. The War of the Eggs.