James Talbot Norton arrived in New Zealand in 1873 aged about twenty; as a pastry cook he was well suited to take over a Lyttelton bakery then run by a Mr Lanyon. In 1896 Norton named his burgeoning firm the Lyttelton Bread Company, it would become famed for its bread improver, compressed yeast and most notably, its egg preserver. The man himself became a prominent Lyttelton resident with numerous civic positions, including stints as Methodist Church trustee, Vice President of the Trinity Tennis Club, President of the Lyttelton Seamen's Institute, Borough Councillor, and deputy and acting Mayor.
Norton attended the United Bakers' Association's first conference in Wellington in 1901 and again in 1902. His “Dorex” malt flour was a popular product but it was his egg preservative recipe that was accountable for his name acquiring household fame. “Norton's Premier Egg Preserver” became one of the most popular brands on the market and was promoted at trade fairs New Zealand wide.
Prior to the introduction of large scale battery farming, hens were kept in domestic yards and laid only in spring and summer. To have a supply of eggs over winter required some form of preservation to seal out oxygen; methods included coating eggs with butter or lard, liquid paraffin or isinglass (a gelatin made from fish swim bladders), or gum arabic (made from the sap of certain Acacia tree species).
Detailed instructions for Norton's water glass method were provided on the packaging of his distinctively branded tins and in the recipe books his company also produced. It was recommended that the eggs were best used in baking, as botulism could be a risk with such methods of long keeping. Ingredients were not listed but it is most likely that the preservative contained sodium silicate, a glassy solid that dissolves in water to form an alkaline solution, in use since the early 1800s.
“To one part PRESERVER add 20 parts water, preferably boiled, but cold (good drinking water is satisfactory). Mix well and when COOL half fill a tin or jar with the mixture and place fresh eggs therin (sic), leaving 1 to 2 inches of solution over the eggs at all times. Cover the container well to lessen evaporation or use a tin with press on lid. Store in an airy, and the coolest place available. Before the eggs are required for cooking remove a supply for the week – they keep well for many weeks but during hot weather are better in the liquid.
This preserver is excellent for removing old varnish or paint, also cleaning woodwork and porcelain. Ideal for hardening and waterproofing concrete … DO NOT USE ON GLASS!”
Norton's first premises at 15-17 Oxford Street comprised a one storey cake shop called the “Excelsior Tearooms” or “JT Norton's Refreshment Rooms”, with a bakehouse at the rear and a separate grocer's store on the site. In 1913, business was profitable enough that a two storey brick building was constructed by local builders Hollis and Brown. This substantial building featured the Excelsior dance hall on the first floor, with the Norton Egg Preserver factory at the rear. With its sprung wooden floor, the Excelsior Hall became an important social hub in the early decades of the 20th century, hosting dances, bands and even roller skating competitions and provided the backdrop for the flourishing of many a romantic partnership.
Norton died in 1947, aged 84 years, having famously provided eggs for the Antarctic explorations of Scott and Shackleton and putting Lyttelton on the map with his innovation and enterprise. At the time of the earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 the Norton's building had become quite run down and was up for sale, although being partially tenanted by a souvenir shop and opportunity shop on the ground floor. Not since built upon, the site is currently used as the art studio of Falco Sculpture, where Simon Max Bannister crafts striking environmental and mythological themed sculptures from wood and bronze.