gingerbread kids and the history of gingerbread cookies


Just wanted to send my best wishes to you all for a happy, healthy holiday season! I made these gingerbread boys and girls earlier this month for my daughter’s class. I used my gingerbread cut-out cookie recipe and royal icing recipe. They kicked off a study of fairy tales with these…


And because I’m a total nerd, below is a (large) excerpt from my first book (now out of print), Cookie Sensations. I include a chapter on the history of the decorated cookie, including gingerbread. So if you’re a nerd like me, enjoy!!




Excerpt taken from my book, Cookie Sensations, published in 2007.


            No discussion of the decorated cookie is complete without a look at gingerbread. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, gingerbread, derived from the Latin name for ginger, “Zingebar,” came to be known from the fifteenth century onwards as a cake flavored with ginger and treacle (a British type of syrup) shaped into men, animals, and letters, and usually gilded (brushed with gold coloring). Gingerbread was primarily a fairground delicacy in Medieval times throughout France, Germany, Holland and England. Some English village traditions requested unmarried women to eat gingerbread “husbands” at fairs to increase the likelihood of meeting a man.
            Shaping gingerbread into people is a centuries-old tradition. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have ordered gingerbread cut into the shapes of her courtiers. In Belgium, cookies were cut into folk characters such as St. Nicholas. In the 1600s, gingerbread men were sold in London streets, possibly inspired by the folk legend of the Gingerbread Boy who jumped out of his oven.
            In the tale, a woman desperate for a boy of her own bakes a gingerbread boy and dresses him with currants, cinnamon, colored sugar, and chocolate. But the cookie jumps out of the oven and out the door singing, “Run, run, as fast as you can; Can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man.” He escapes all whom he encounters until his fatal outwitting by a sly fox. The legend found its way to America from England, though in Colonial days the tale was named “Johnny Cake.”
            The enchantment of gingerbread inspires great literary intrigue. Gingerbread was one of the sweets brought to Sir Thopas in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales of 1386. “They fette hym…real spicerye/ Of Gyngebred that was ful fyn/ And lycorys and eek comyn/ With sugre that is trye.”2 Shakespeare, too, in Loves Labours Lost, writes of sacrifice in the name of gingerbread: “‘An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread.’”3            Dorothy Wordsworth shared this desperate love. The English prose writer (and younger sister to the poet Williams Wordsworth) found gingerbread tasty enough to include in her journal. In January 1803, despite the bitter cold, she and her brother left home in search of gingerbread to satisfy their cravings.
            Gingerbread is not always held in such high esteem in the literary imagination.  The British poet, William Cowper, in his 1783 poem, Table Talk, warns of the dangers of falling below one’s potential and of settling for lesser substitution: “As if the Poet, purposing to wed, should carve himself a wife in ginger-bread.”4 Such seems quite a reversal in sentiment from the aforementioned women at fairs eating gingerbread “husbands.”
            Similar to gingerbread, “lebkuchen” was used in Germany to build “Hexenhaeusle,” or “witches’ houses,” romanticized and popularized by the story of Hansel and Gretel when published in 1812 as part of the Grimm brothers’ collected German folktales. Hansel and Gretel, seen as a drain on scarce resources, are abandoned by their poor parents despite their father’s reluctance. Alone in the woods, their furtive bread crumb trail home eaten by birds, Hansel and Gretel wander for days, starving, until they come across a house  “made of bread” with a roof “made of cake and the windows of sparkling sugar.”5 They tear off pieces and stuff themselves, unknowing the cruel, old woman within purposely constructed the house to entice, trap, bake, and eat children. But Hansel and Gretel outfox the old crone and push her into the oven, saving themselves.
Cookies in America
            Gingerbread spread to America by European settlers and was also popular at fairs and festivals. New England recipes for flat cookies cut into patriotic shapes were created for  “Muster Day” or “Election Day.” Prior to the Revolution, shapes often depicted a king, but later, the American Eagle. The cookies were handed out to wives and children when militias gathered for officer election or for military training.
            Other cookies had already made their home in America in recipe, if not in name. Martha Washington’s “Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats,” a manuscript “curiously copied by an unknown Hand sometime in the seventeenth century,” was in Martha Washington’s possession from 1749 until 1799. The recipes for “cakes” are similar to what we today call “cookies.” For sugar cakes, the baker is instructed to “take 2 pounds of flower, & one pound of sugar, & youlks of 2 eggs, & a spoonfull of sack, & a spoonfull of rosewater, & make it up into paste with melted butter & roule it out pritty thin.” A beer glass is suggested to cut the cookies before baking in an oven “meanly hot with stone downe.”6
            The cookbook even includes a recipe similar to the Royal Icing of today, dubbed “Paste Royall.” It is made with refined sugar, cinnamon, ginger and a “grayne of musk,” made into a paste. The decorator then is to “print it with your moulds. Then gild it, & serve it up.” For white paste royall, the baker is to put the sugar into an “alleblaster morter with an ounce of gum tragacant steeped in rose water.”  7 Fortunately, today we have a bottle of white frosting color to achieve better results.
            Gingerbread recipes are not forgotten, made with a gallon of “ye purest honey” boiled on the fire. Then, the baker adds “good white wine vinegar” to make the “scum rise” so you can remove it before adding a “quart of strong ale.” Ginger, licorice, anise seeds, red sanders, and a peck of grated bread are added before the baker presses the dough in molds to “make it into what fashion you pleas.”8 Another recipe suggests adding claret wine to make “culler’d” gingerbread.
            Such collections of handwritten recipes were common at this time, as printed cookbooks were scarce. But the popularity of publications dedicated to good housekeeping and cookery is not specific to modern times. Gervase Markham’s early seventeenth century volume, the English Huswife, included advice on cooking, planting, brewing, clothing, and curing the plague. Its success spurred other publications into the eighteenth century. American colonists relied primarily on British presses, but British authors paid little attention to the needs of the New World and to American cuisine.
            Amelia’s Simmons’s first edition of American Cookery in 1796, a practical, inexpensive, paperback book, changed this. Her book included recipes such as “Johny Cake” (sic) and “Indian Slapjacks” that required distinctly American ingredients.  Simmons’s is the first cookbook to use the American term “cookie,” derived from the Dutch “koekje.”
            Noteworthy is Simmons addition of a newly-born cooking method of using chemical leavening in doughs, similar to our baking powder or soda. Prior, bakers had beat air into eggs, but by 1796, an anonymous American woman had added a chemical to produce carbon dioxide. Simmons’s cookbook is the first known to suggest adding pearlash to gingerbread and cookie dough, a substance primarily composed of potassium carbonate and used to make soap and glass.
            Simmons’s gingerbread cookie recipe calls for molasses in lieu of treacle to customize the sweet to her American audience. The dough combines cinnamon, coriander or allspice, “put to four tea spoons pearl ash, dissolved in half pint water,” flour, molasses, and butter (“if in summer rub in the butter, if in winter, warm the butter”). The mixture is kneaded and washed with egg whites and sugar.9
            Simmons’s sugar cookie recipe calls for a pound of sugar, “boiled slowly in half pint water,” and the baker is to “feum well and cool, add two tea spoons pearl ash dissolved in milk, then two and half pounds flour, rub in 4 ounces butter, and two large spoons of finely powdered coriander feed, wet with above.” The dough is then rolled half an inch thick and “cut to the shape you please.”10

Cookie cutters
           In America, molds and boards gradually disappeared in favor of emphasizing the outline of the desired shape. German settlers in Pennsylvania shaped gingerbread by hand into men, often displaying the cookies in windows. The English cut dough with a glass or tea cup. Martha Washington’s cookbook suggests cutting dough with a beer glass, as mentioned earlier. The idea of placing a metal rim around the outline of a carved mold originated in the mid 1600s, and by 1750, the cookie cutter as a shape independent of a mold came into being.
            The 19th c tin industry developed the art of cookie cutters. Tinsmiths used traveling shops, packing their materials and belongings on wagons. Most carried cutter patterns to ensure uniformity, but they would make cookie cutters to housewives’ requests if need be. With increased machinery, by the end of the century cookie cutters were sold in catalogs and stores.
            Cookie cutters were first hung as tree ornaments in shapes such as stars, moons, suns, toys, animals, and humans. With the rise of Christmas as a commercial holiday, shapes of the season, such as wreaths, Santa, and stockings, soon prevailed. American cookie cutters of the 1800s were thick and heavy, usually with flat backs and sometimes with strap handles. Air holes cut in the back allowed air to escape to free the dough from the cutter more easily and were often large enough for a lady’s finger to fit through if an extra push was necessary. Shapes at this time included hearts, horses, rabbits, birds, long-dressed ladies, high-hatted men, horsemen, leaves, and flowers.
            Bridge card party sets, with diamonds, clovers, spades, and hearts, were popular in the early 1900s, available in catalogs such as Sears Roebuck or The Bruce & West Manufacturing Company. With the rise of advertising, baking powder companies and flour mills began to sell cookie cutters with their printed slogans. By the 1920s, cookie cutters were mass produced in aluminum. Aside from more choices, a surprising consistency and uniformity among shapes survived the century, and the basic shapes remain the same today.
            But throughout the decades, companies produced cookie cutters unique to their era. Like any relics from popular culture, cookie cutters lend insight into the interests and lives of a generation. Pillsbury released the Comicooky Cutters series in 1937, including paper stickers to apply to the cookies in the likeness of comic characters from Moon Mullins, Gasoline Alley, or Dick Tracy. In the late 1940s, the Educational Products Company sold Blondie and Dagwood cookie cutter sets, complete with their children and Daisy the dog.
            Wrigley Spearmint Gum advertised Troll kits for kids through the cookie cutter company, Mirro, in the mid-1960s. For fifty cents, the kit included an aluminum troll cookie cutter with decorating tips. They recommended sticking “tiny candies for cooky eyes” or to sprinkle the top with “wigs of shaggy, tinted coconut” to get laughs and “score a fantastic hit.”11
            Plastic cookie cutters became popular in the 1950s.  Hallmark introduced their first set of cookie cutters in 1971, offering brightly-colored plastic cutters with incredible variety. Cutter shapes included not only a wide assortment of holiday designs, but baby cookies, Disney characters, Snoopy and Charlie Brown, the Muppets, and Raggedy Ann and Andy.
            Today, you can find copper, aluminum, plastic, or tin cookie cutters in just about  any shape you can imagine for the twenty-first century: martinis, the little black dress, an electric guitar, a bikini, a hula girl, a fighter jet, pi, a lap top computer, the space shuttle…
            A long history of shaping and decorating cookies precedes us. I’m not sure why these representations seem so specific to sugary treats. I’ve not heard of a carrot decorated as a British King or a meatloaf to mimic Raggedy Ann. Perhaps it’s the natural indulgence of sweets. There is something powerful and gluttonous about ingesting cookie symbols of religion, popular culture, nature, animals, and characters. We can consume tasty versions of the world by creating edible art, just by thoughtfully shaping dough and adding color.

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  1. Heather Mantz says

    Wow, thanks. My husband and I were wondering about the origin just the other day and was too lazy to look it up.

  2. says

    We are definitely on the same wavelength, Meaghan; I just posted some too:) I love their noses, so cute! Merry Christmas to you and your family!

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