In the bad old days, eggs in the big cities mostly came from the Midwest. Farmers would collect eggs and leave them, unrefrigerated, until they felt like going into town. They’d sell the eggs at the general store or the feed store, and the merchant would hold them, unrefrigerated, until he had a large enough lot to ship to an egg wholesaler.
The eggs would work their way towards the city, unrefrigerated, by slow freight. Eventually, they’d arrive in the store, where they would be set out, unrefrigerated, for the consumer.
This method was so horrendous that, in the summer, baby chicks would hatch during shipment! In the South, particularly, many people simply didn’t eat eggs in the summer.
By the way, the traditional American farm breeds all lay brown eggs.
There was a good market for reliably fresh eggs. Such eggs needed a short distribution chain so there wasn’t time for anything bad to happen between farm and consumer. The solution was to raise them on farms close to town. Land close to town is expensive, so the tendency was to crowd the hens and use breeds that tolerated crowding well. This was usually the White Leghorn, which was everybody’s favorite chicken for non-free-range uses, including coops on sailing ships. Leghorns lay white eggs.
So white eggs quickly came to mean “fancy eggs,” while brown eggs meant, “plain old farm eggs.” If you lived in farm country, where it’s easy to obtain fresh eggs because of the short distribution path, you’d eat brown eggs and wonder why anybody ever bothered with those sissy white eggs. If you lived in a big city, it would be just the opposite.
Another advantage of white eggs is that they show stains easily, meaning that snowy white eggs are a reliable sign that you are taking pains to produce a first-class product. On the general farm, it was awfully hard to produce eggs that clean, but brown-shelled eggs could hide the problem pretty well.
It took a long time for refrigeration to level the playing field. A lot of eggs were still moving by unrefrigerated freight in the Fifties. It’s this lack of quality control and freshness, not lower costs, that allowed factory-farmed eggs to take over. The guys with the refrigerators won because they never gave you a hideous surprise.
These days, almost everyone refrigerates their eggs from start to finish, except a few hippie-dippy producers who think that their political correctness shields them from the need to worry about quality. The reasons that white eggs were considered superior no longer apply. But the preference lingers. Let’s face it: eggs don’t have a lot of mindshare with most people, so they buy whatever they were used to growing up.