logo - Join me in the 1900s mid C20th
The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as a young child

Pre-digital kitchen timers:
hour glass timers and egg timers

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Early egg timer (hour glass type) of sand in glass, set in wood, common before the digital revolution

Old egg timer

It was not until the 1970s that digital clocks, watches and timers became commonplace in households. Before then, there were other devices for measuring time, one of which was known by the general name of an 'hour glass'.

The version of the hour glass timer which was in every home was for timing boiled eggs. It was known as an 'egg timer'. My recollections of egg timers start from when I was a very small girl in the early 1940s, although they must have been common for many years before, as they certainly were for many years afterwards.

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The structure of an egg timer

Egg timers, like all hour glass timers, consisted of fine sand in a clear glass container which was pinched in at its centre. The amount of sand and the extent of the constriction were both adjusted by the manufacturers so that sand in the top bulb took a specified time to flow into the bottom bulb. For an egg timer, this time always seemed to be 3 minutes as the accepted wisdom was that an egg would take precisely 3 minutes to be soft boiled to perfection - something I have never since understood because much depends on the size of the eggs and whether the timing starts from cold or boiling water.

The glass was housed in wood in most households, as there were no plastics, although there were probably also stone or clay housings. The wooden housing was sometimes quite decoratively carved, with some woods having a more attractive colour and grain than others. Often they were decorated in some way as mementos - perhaps with pictures etched on or with the sand being of a colour unique to a particular place. These of course tended to be left-overs from the 1930s because of the shortages in shops during World War Two and afterwards. In later years the housing tended to be coloured plastic. I bought my mother one in the 1950s which was set in a Perspex block.

Normally both the top and the bottom of an egg timer were flat so that the egg timer could stand either way up, although some had some sort of swivel arrangement for the glass.

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Using an egg timer

When someone came to use the egg timer, the sand was of course all settled in the bottom bulb. So to start the timing the egg timer had to be turned upside down. Then an eye had to be kept on it because there was no audible signal that the time was up. If the moment that all the sand had settled in the bottom bulb was missed, it was impossible to know how much time had actually elapsed.

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The life of an egg timer

Egg timers normally had a fairly short life because the glass was thin and broke easily if knocked or dropped. Fortunately it wasn't difficult to find a spare because egg timers were standard presents, particularly as mementos of holidays.

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Hour glasses to measure any specified time

Hour glasses could be manufactured to measure any length of time by varying the size of the bulbs, the thickness of the constriction and the amount of sand, but I never saw any. I assume they were probably expensive to produce because there would have been little call for them, and they were probably more popular in previous centuries where clocks were non-existent or prohibitively expensive.

Of course, as the duration of the time couldn't be changed, most cooks just kept a wary eye on the clock. When my mother put a cake in the oven, she would look at the kitchen clock, screw up her eyes slightly in thought and announce to anyone who cared to listen, "That's got to come out at - uhm - ten past five (or whatever)".

If you can add anything to this page, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.