Highlights from wedding cake history

The cake from President Wilson's daughter's wedding in 1913: "the usual kind of bride cake, and not that elaborate."

The cake from President Wilson’s daughter’s wedding in 1913: “the usual kind of bride cake, and not that elaborate.”

While I did the reading for this week’s article at Table Matters, many friends expressed surprise at how immersed I became in the history of wedding cakes. I’ve been suffering a bit of wedding burnout over the last few years, and I am not quiet about it. And true, reading about wedding cakes while in the midst of the summer wedding season (not to mention Pride month) did stimulate a lot of personal reflection on weddings, the cultural expectations of marriage, my own feelings about both, and other topics I have gotten quite tired of.

But you guys, cake history is the history of the world. I got immersed in reading about cake recipes and practices from the last few centuries because those stories are the records of what it was like to come of age and get married in a period when refined sugar was new, when ships crossed and recrossed the Atlantic slowly carrying people and packages, and when the newspaper was the only source for information about the rich and royal.

These are a few details that fascinated me, but that didn’t make it into the final version.

  • There is not any single comprehensive explanation for the present-day tradition of having a cake in a wedding–but because there somehow has to be a cake, folks make up their own interpretations. Wedding Cakes and Cultural History, one of the few book-length histories on the subject, emerged from the author’s anthropological research into what the cake represents to 20th century Scottish couples; the author prefaces his research with a story of one contemporary couple who refused to have a wedding cake because they’d heard or read that the cake was meant to represent the bride. It’s a plausible theory: the cake has three tiers, anthropomorphic-like; it’s white and embellished like the gown; it is often decorated to match the bride and sometimes even shares her favors (she sets her bouquet on top, or uses charms from her own gown for the ribbon pull). The couple was sickened by the implications of the shared cutting-of-the-cake ceremony, which they read as a hymen allusion. (Imagine how much more grotesque this would seem with the traditional dark fruit cake of Scottish weddings!)
    Plausible, like I said. But also a good parable of the dangers of interpreting cultural history too literally.
  • I mentioned that it was common in the late 19th century and early 20th to mail pieces of wedding cake all over the States and across the ocean to absent relatives. This is slightly less surprising when you consider that the cake was usually dense, dairyless, and soaked in brandy; all the same, you do read instances of wedding cake related deaths before the age of refrigeration.
  • I also mentioned that it was not uncommon for families to make their own white wedding cakes at home after WWII. I did not mention the recipes I found in the New York Times for making your own wedding cake at home. Here is one from 1957: pour four boxes of white cake mix into a bowl and add water according to box instructions; blend.
  • During WWII, it was totally legit to buy a cardboard cover in the shape of a decorative, multi-tier cake and place it over your smaller, less fancy wartime-rations wedding cake, suggesting that most important role of the cake was, as it ever is, to look nice in photographs.
  • A Scottish proverb:  “There never was a cake, but it had a make.” I have no idea what it means but obviously my first impression was of a literary antecedent to “The cake is a lie.”
  • Also, this isn’t strictly from my research, but I’m sure many of you will be happy to know that there is a Hyperbole and a Half cartoon to straighten out the Cake vs. Pie debate once and for all.

For more cake history, see my earlier post on wedding cake mentions in 19th century novels.

A replica of Princess Vicki's 1958 wedding cake.

A replica of Princess Vicki’s 1958 wedding cake.

4 responses to “Highlights from wedding cake history

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