Ruminations: On the historic rise of the birthday cake

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Photo by Lara Starr
Photo by Lara Starr

copyright the Chronicle March 4, 2015

by Tena Starr

My family isn’t overly fond of cake, which got me to wondering about the history of the ritual. How is it that cake and candles are such an entrenched tradition that people who don’t even really like cake still have it at a birthday celebration?

(To be honest here, Chris at Parker Pie made this year’s birthday cake, and most of us confessed that we did, indeed, like it. So maybe it’s just the cakes we make ourselves that we’re not so fond of.)

It turns out that cake itself has a history that goes back to the creation of flour, although the word “cake” would not have meant to a person in Medieval England what it means to us. The earliest cakes were found among the remains of Neolithic villages, meaning that cake first started appearing, depending on where in the world it was, between 2000 and 9000 BC. Those cakes were made of crushed grains that had been moistened and cooked, probably on a hot stone.

The Greeks called cakes “plakous,” from the word for flat, and their cakes were usually made from nuts and honey, which sounds tasty.

One of the Roman names for cake was “placenta,” which I don’t want to think about too hard. The Romans primarily used cakes as an offering to the gods.

By the time we get to Medieval England, cake generally referred to something made with flour that had been sweetened, as opposed to bread, which wasn’t sweetened.

As for birthday cake…. Like with so many traditions, accounts vary, and aren’t definitive, but one suggests that the notion of putting candles on cake originated in ancient Greece where round cakes were made to honor Artemis, goddess of the moon. The cakes were decorated with lit candles to represent the glow of the moon.

The Greeks also believed that the smoke from candles carried their prayers to the gods. Maybe that’s where the idea that you make a wish on birthday candles came from.

The first actual birthday cake is thought to have been made in Germany sometime in the Middle Ages when Germans (for some reason) began to make cakes to celebrate the birthdays of young children, a celebration called Kinderfest. And (for some reason) the Germans decided to sweeten up the cakes beyond the usual, and layer them. They called those fancy cakes Geburtstagorten.

And we might have Germany to thank, as well, for candles on a cake. Some accounts say that’s where candles on a birthday cake originated — a lit candle was put on a cake to represent “the light of life.”

By the seventeenth century, birthday cakes had become quite elaborate, with fancy icing and layers, but of course such a cake was not within the range of anyone. Only the wealthy could afford such a thing.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the cost of ingredients for cakes had gone down considerably.

And then along came the cake mix, which has a story of its own. The original prepackaged cake mix was all about getting people to buy up a surplus of molasses. On December 10, 1930, John Duff of a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, company called P. Duff and Sons, applied for a patent for a gingerbread mix. Each batch used 100 pounds of flour and 100 pounds of molasses, according to food historian Laura Shapiro.

From gingerbread, the company moved on to cake mixes, believing that it had stumbled onto the future of baking in America.

“In the ordinary preparation of pastry products, there are a large and varied number of ingredients which must be used, which means keeping a complete stock of materials on hand,” says U.S. Patent Number 1,931,892. “This is not only expensive and inconvenient, but necessitates careful measurements and mixing and, therefore, the provision of suitable apparatus. In addition to the above, unsatisfactory results or failure occur too frequently, which represents a serious loss of time, of money, of materials, and of energy.”

The first two cake mixes, devil’s food and spice cake, sold for 21 cents per 14-ounce can.

Cake mixes didn’t really take off, though, until after World War II when big flour companies decided to market convenience. By the end of the 1940s more than 200 companies were selling cake mixes, the lion’s share of the business, however, going to Pillsbury and Betty Crocker.

At our own birthday celebration last week, I realized that, although I’d got it together to have a fine cake made, I’d forgotten candles. So I sent my son to the Westfield General Store to get some.

He came back with two boxes, which seemed excessive. You put five, or eight, or 12 candles on a cake for a child, corresponding to age. After a point in age, you generally stop with that.

But nope. He was determined to make the candles age appropriate.

He does have a sense of humor, this boy. He carefully cut all the candles in half and put at least 80 very short candles on the cake.

I said, you know, if you do this, the cake is going to be covered in wax. Maybe not the best idea.

He ignored me.

He lit it up, and said you might want to call the fire department.

Maybe we didn’t need the fire department, but a fire extinguisher might have come in handy.

contact Tena Starr at [email protected]

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