By Lucy Grissom Dec 17th 2022
I love the tradition of birthday cake. Food is one of my love languages so baking someone their favorite cake on their birthday is one of my favorite things to do for the people I love. It gets me out of my comfort zone for baking because everyone has a different favorite cake. I think it makes the honoree feel so special to have a whole lit up cake in their honor that they get to wish upon. I love any excuse to celebrate and what gathers people quicker than the promise of a home baked cake? A birthday cake lit with candles is an iconic image in American culture. I couldn’t help but wonder, why do we celebrate birthdays like this and where did this tradition come from?
Throughout history, cake has been a symbol of celebration. It is reserved for special occasions because, before modern inventions, baking cakes was very time consuming and required attention to detail, knowledge, a steady oven at the right temperature, sweetener, and flour. All of which were highly valued. The Greeks and the Romans baked cakes as offerings to gods. A Roman cake called placenta was similar to a cheesecake. Greek cakes were thought to be made out of a mixture of fruit, nuts, flour, honey, cheese, herbs, or seeds. The Greeks are also believed to be the first to light candles on a cake. They did this to honor Artemis, the goddess of the moon.
Ancient Egyptians were some of the first people to celebrate birthdays for humans, kind of. When Pharaohs were crowned, this was thought to be their birth as a god. It is likely that a cake would be baked in their honor because Egypt was baking cakes with yeast at this time and it is speculated that cakes were a common offering to gods.
Aztecs and Mayans were also thought to celebrate the birthdays of gods. “The most important was the birthday of the Aztecs’ great solar deity Huitzilopochtli, on the day 1 Flint in the 260-day calendar” says Dr. Catherine DiCesare. The birthdays of the people also born on this day were celebrated and were thought to be destined for greatness. The Mayans also may have celebrated birthdays. They had an advanced calendar system and had a deep understanding and appreciation of the passing of time.
The German tradition of “kinderfest” which originated in the Middle Ages is the closest birthday celebration to what we celebrate in America today. On a German child’s birthday, they would receive a cake with lit candles at breakfast time. The candles represented the child’s age and one more to signify the life they have had so far and the hopes that they would live another year healthy. The candles would burn all day long and finally, at dinner time, the child could blow out the candles and make a wish.
In the 17th century in Europe, cakes started to evolve into what we might picture a birthday cake to look and taste like now. As in, decorated with icing, perhaps having piping or little flowers. These types of cake were very expensive and reserved for the ultra wealthy. Think Marie Antoinette. There is evidence of birthday cake in this time period as well. The Canterbury Tales, written in the 1700s has mention of a birthday celebration involving eating cake.
In the early days of American colonization, times were rough and there were very few cakes being baked. It is also very uncommon to have a birthday celebration. This was probably due to the large number of Puritan settlers. They believed the celebration of the life of a mortal was a sin and celebration should be reserved for God only.
However, later in American history, the birthdays of rich people were celebrated. George Washington not only had one birthday celebration, but two. Because the calendar switched when America became independent from Britain, people celebrated his birthday on February 11th and February 22nd. It is not known if he had a birthday cake but he probably did. His favorite type of cake according to “American Cakes” was (incorrectly named) Martha Washington’s Great Cake. It “included forty eggs worked into four pounds of butter, four pounds of sugar, five pounds of flour, and an equal quantity of fruit. The recipe also called for mace and nutmeg, and to these dry ingredients, wine and brandy were added. When all the ingredients were combined the cake was baked for five and a half hours.” This cake, of course, was not baked by Martha Washington, but by her slaves.
By the 1860s, birthday celebrations were becoming more popular among middle class people. I would suspect that they were especially popular in St. Louis, which had a large German immigrant population at the time. By the 1880s birthday celebrations spread all over America. It was usually children’s birthdays that were celebrated and Joe Pinsker speculates in The Atlantic that the rise in birthday celebrations is due to the mind shift of people having less children and valuing their children more as emotional support rather than extra hands for labor. During this time in America, the use of schedules and calendars were becoming more popular. Birthdays were used to separate children into grade levels and age was in the front of everyone’s mind more than it had been before.
The invention of baking powder also helped the rise (get it?) of birthday cakes in the US. Before baking powder, baking was mainly done with yeast, which was very hard to control and had to be made by fermenting fruits and vegetables. Yeast took hours to rise and often did not at all. Or eggs had to be beaten heavily with air, which was very time and labor consuming. Some cooks used potash or pearlash but these were also unpredictable and did not have a good taste. Baking powder was being developed from around 1850 to 1890, into what it is today. During this time, baking cakes became much easier and way less time consuming. Also coinciding with this time was the Industrial Revolution which made ingredients cheaper and more readily available than ever before. It became relatively cheap and common to buy a cake from a bakery. Although cake was still reserved for special occasions, it was possible for a middle class family to buy one or two birthday cakes a year, to make their children happy and hope for another year with them.
There is a recipe from Mrs. Fisher’s cookbook for gold cake that came out in 1881, when birthday cakes were new to Americans but were becoming more and more common. I wanted to try to bake this cake as if I was baking a birthday cake for my child in 1881. The recipe called for a dozen egg yolks, beat very light, which I did with a whisk and it took me about 20 minutes. Then I creamed together a pound of butter and a pound of sugar, which took some time and was hard to get it beaten light. The recipe called for flour mixed with “the best yeast powder,” which may have been another name for baking powder at this time, but I baked the cake with dry active yeast. Mixing everything by hand took a long time and was surprisingly harder than I thought it was going to be. Throughout the process I tried to keep everything very light and full of air because I wasn’t sure if the yeast would rise. I let the batter sit out for 12 hours and it did seem to rise by the morning. I poured it in a pan, let it rise another hour, then baked it for probably 45 minutes at 350 degrees. It turned out a lot better than I expected it to! It was delicious and it definitely had some rise to it. It was denser than the cakes I bake with baking powder but I think that is also due to how much butter is in this cake.
Cake has evolved so much in America and there are literally thousands of different cakes that originated here. I love that a birthday cake can be any type of cake, as long as the honoree likes it! My friend Audrey’s favorite birthday cake is a cheesecake, my boss Kaylee’s favorite is strawberry shortcake, and my dad’s birthday cake of choice is Hobo Kelly pie, which is not a cake but I still count it because it is his favorite and it has candles on top. The Doberge cake, which is an incredibly complex cake involving many layers of cake and pudding, originated in New Orleans and an author online describes this as her birthday tradition.
My personal favorite type of birthday cake to make for someone if they don’t tell me their favorite type of cake is chocolate cake. I have a special recipe that I beat in boiling water at the end. This makes it very moist and delicious. I also baked this cake as a late birthday cake for Daltry because I had the flu on her birthday! I wanted to compare the two cakes to taste how much cake has evolved.
I was half hoping to find a dark history of birthday cake for the drama of this paper, but I am happy it is just a fun celebration so I can keep making cakes for my friends! It is fun to honor people on their birthdays and celebrate every chance we get.
“Development of Baking Powder – National Historic Chemical Landmark.” American Chemical Society, https://www.acs.org/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/bakingpowder.html#development-of-baking-powder.
DiCesare, Catherine. “Questions for March 2019.” Mexicolore, Mar. 2019, https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/ask-experts/did-the-aztecs-celebrate-gods-birthdays.
Fisher, Abby. “Gold Cake.” What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking: Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc.., Women’s Co-Operative Printing Office, San Francisco, CA, 1881, pp. 28–28.
“The Germans in America.” European Reading Room, Library of Congress, 14 Apr. 2014, https://www.loc.gov/rr/european/imde/germchro.html#:~:text=German%20immigrants%20boarding%20a%20ship%20for%20America%20in%20the%20late%2019th%20century.&text=1880s%20%2D%20In%20this%20decade%2C%20the,number%20ever%2C%20arrived%20in%201882.
Guzman, Francisco, and Saeed Ahmed. “Today Is George Washington’s Birthday. but Here’s Why We Celebrate It on Presidents’ Day.” CNN, Cable News Network, 22 Feb. 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/22/us/george-washington-birthday-presidents-day-trnd/index.html.
Martyris, Nina. “Make America Bake Again: A History of Cake in the U.S.” NPR, NPR, 7 Nov. 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/11/07/501032393/make-america-bake-again-a-history-of-cake-in-the-u-s.
Pinsker, Joe. “The Strange Origins of American Birthday Celebrations.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 24 May 2022, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/11/history-birthday-celebrations/620585/.
Willard, Jim. “Cake Had Its Rise in Ancient Egypt.” Herald, Loveland Reporter-Herald, 27 Apr. 2012, https://www.reporterherald.com/2012/04/27/cake-had-its-rise-in-ancient-egypt/.
“THE SEVENTH’S CAMP LIFE: HONORS GIVEN TO DISTINGUISHED MEMBERS. A BIRTHDAY CAKE FOR COL. CLARK, A MEDAL FOR COLOR SERGEANT BRAISTED, AND PRAISE FOR CAPPA.” New York Times (1857-1922) Jun 23 1885: 3. ProQuest. 12 Dec. 2022 .