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Cake, the Final Frontier

In celebration of summertime wedding season, we are taking a look into the history of wedding cakes. When did the tradition of celebrating with cake begin and how have cakes evolved?

Can You Call It a Cake When There’s a Snake In It?

My oh my, have wedding cakes evolved with the times. Technology and artistry have both influenced the cake itself and cake decoration. Let’s start this journey in 17th century Europe (but mostly England).

According to Carol Wilson’s article in Gastronomica, Wedding Cake: A Slice of History, the first known wedding-specific dish was the Bride’s Pye (this is how it’s spelled, I promise). The Bride’s Pye was a centerpiece of the table much like wedding cakes today, but they didn’t have to be sweet. For example, in the 1685 book, The Accomplisht Cook, the recipe was for a meat pie consisting of spices, sweetbreads, oysters, and other various meats. Every guest was supposed to eat some of the pye, so as not to offend the newlyweds. The Bride’s Pyes would sometimes even house live snakes (!!!) or birds so that guests would be entertained when the pie was cut and they escaped. And many times, people hid a ring inside the pye and whoever found the ring was next to get married. Personally, I think I’d rather have the ring than a snake, but that’s just me.

The wedded couple sometimes also served their guests a slice of Bride’s cake. Bride’s cake is different from Bride’s Pye in that it was more of a sweet bread filled with dried fruits. The Bride’s cake was a one-tier cake very similar to today’s fruit cake and typically it was baked on the hearth. Fruit cakes were used at weddings as a symbol of fertility and prosperity. Eventually the name changed from “Bride’s cake” to “Plum cake” and the tradition of hiding objects inside for guests to find continued. In Yorkshire the plum cake contained more fun surprises such as a ring, coin, thimble, and button. A coin for prosperity, a ring for marriage, and then the thimble and button for lifelong single-life.

These were simple cakes that evolved in the 17th and 18th centuries with the advancement of technology and access to ingredients. Sweet cakes became easier to make and more available to the average family wedding celebration with inventions like home ovens, refined sugar (even triple-refined), refined flour, and replacing yeast with eggs to leaven cakes and create a moister cake. Later in the 19th century, baking soda and baking powder were invented and people began to use them alongside eggs to create light and airy cakes. Eventually the “plum cake” changed to a “wedding cake,” and the dense fruit cakes gave way to airy sponge cakes.

Cake Decorating: A Royal Affair

Queen Victoria's wedding cake illustration
Illustration of Queen Victoria's wedding cake. Source: - Royal Wedding Cakes History

Cake decorating really started to shine with Queen Victoria’s wedding cake of the 1840s. Plum cakes of earlier years were simply decorated with a sugar icing made from egg whites, sugar, and a touch of lemon. Queen Victoria’s cake was an extravagantly iced white cake, multi-tiered, with sugar sculptures on top and was served at breakfast the morning after the wedding ceremony. It is the cake that links us to the wedding cake we think of today.

Queen Victoria’s cake weighed in at 300 lbs and was over a foot tall!

Weirdly enough, a slice from this same cake was sold at auction in 2016 for £1500 (approx. $1,700). In 2021, a slice of cake from the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana (1981) outdid this iconic wedding cake and sold at auction for £2100 (approx. $2,500). There were additional items included in that auction bundle, but at 40 years old the cake still looked pretty good.

Anyway, back to business; let’s jet on over to 20th century USA.

A Century of Wedding Cakes

The wedding cake industry that we know today began in the 1920s. The style and degree of grandness has come in waves of high and low throughout the 20th century, reflecting the current times and culture of the decade.

  • 1920s -- The wedding cake industry surged with the era’s celebration of elegance and celebrity culture. People wanted to mimic the lavish looks and decor of celebrity brides when choosing their cakes and art deco designs.

  • 1930s -- Cakes introduced us to the Lambeth Method of decorating, which was very detailed and involved intricate piping over the entire cake..

  • 1940s -- During WWII, couples had simplistic cakes with cake toppers in military attire.

  • 1950s -- Bride and groom cake toppers really started to take off.

  • 1960s & 1970s -- The style of the 1960s and 1970s brought buttercream decorated cakes with bright colors, figurines, and accessories (like a fountain)!

  • 1980s -- In the 1980s, wedding cakes grew to be large focal points of the wedding meal, and the focus continued into the 1990s with the added accessory of bridges to connect several offset cakes.

  • 2000s -- Enter naked cakes with minimalistic icing and nature elements, which appeared to be almost a reaction to the decadence of the previous decades.

  • Today -- According to the 2022 cake design trend are square “wall cakes”, Lambeth-inspired cakes (piping!), and bento box cakes (miniature cakes guests can take home). I don’t understand why wall cakes are popular, but I am loving the trend back to the Lambeth method of cake decorating!

I leave this topic interested in the next 50 years of cake evolution. What style of decorating will we see? Will a new cake form take the lead (maybe pie, ice cream, or something new like printed cake)?

For a pictorial representation of how cakes have evolved, I recommend jumping over to Delish’s “How Wedding Cakes Have Changed Over 100 Years.” It’s a fun photo gallery of traditional cake design.


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