The History of Birthday Cake Decoration

Mrs. Quimby brings in the piece de resistance, ablaze with candles and festooned with swags and rosettes of frosting.

The perfect birthday cake in children’s books may appear in the last chapter of Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona (1955).  Beezus, who has just turned ten, is sitting in the living room reading one of her presents, breathing in the vanilla scent of birthday cake in the oven.  The moment could not possibly last with Ramona underfoot.  That afternoon the four-year-old menace succeeds in sabotaging not one, but two birthday cakes.  The day is saved when Aunt Bee picks up a fancy decorated cake from the best bakery in town to replace the eggy homemade yellow layer cake.

Whether or not we consider ourselves foodies, we are a lot more sophisticated about foodways than Beezus was in the 1950s.  She probably took it for granted that birthdays had always been celebrated at a family party with a fancy cake for dessert.  But the traditions surrounding birthdays are not all that well documented.  When Ramin Ganeshram’s controversial picture book A Birthday Cake for George Washington was recalled in January 2016, I made a beeline for the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets to read up on the aubjuect of festive cakes.   I came away with the impression that the there is still a great deal to be learned about them, especially the birthday cake.  On a hunch that children’s books will be a valuable source of information on the history of birthday cakes, I’ve begun saving in a folder descriptions, stories, and illustrations of cakes and celebrations, a few of which I’ll highlight here..

Here’s a picture of a mid-nineteenth-century celebration of a young girl’s birthday.  Mamma in her spotless apron is about to set the cake down on the table, loaded with glasses, carafes of wine, and other delicacies.   The large, well-lit, elaborately furnished room is large enough for allow the guests to converse among themselves or to dance to the music provided by a obliging friend at the piano.

From The House that Jack Built: Amusement for Children at Home. London: J. Fairburn, ca. 1850 (Cotsen 46778).

Modern birthday parties put different pressures on mothers.  They may turn one book for planning the entertainments and to a manual for creating unforgettable cakes for the birthday boy or girl. The goal is an edible sculpture that should elicit “OOOOOs” and “AAAAAHHHHs” at its unveiling, not barely audible groans of “delicious” at the first forkful.  These elaborate cakes take so much effort to make that it would be criminal to carve them up into slices and plate. These are objects to admire, not gobble up, because they are expressions of  unconditional mother love and frustrated artistic urges.  Child psychologists are probably already arguing against making little people go these places on their birthdays. Perhaps in addition to the highly gendered confection a second, less fancy cake that no one needs feel guilty consuming is provided.

A galleon cake with inedible sails made of chocolate buttercream frosting over chocolate ice cream manned by pirates too respectable to sail with Long John Silver or Johnny Depp. From Sue Aldridge’s Children’s Party Cakes. London: New Holland, 1998 (Cotsen unprocessed).

A so-called enchanted forest cake summons up the fairy tale woods of Grimm. Many other cakes of this type are riffs on children’s classics or popular culture. From Debbie Brown, Enchanted Cakes for Children. London: Merehurst, 2001 (Cotsen unprocessed).

There are picture books about birthdays by women authors that send up this female urge to decorate stupendous cakes.  In Rosemary Wells’ Bunny Cakes, Ruby tries to make her little brother Max help her make their grandmother a birthday cake with raspberry fluff frosting bedizened with candles, silver stars, sugar hearts, and buttercream roses.  Max is not exactly cooperative, having a brilliant idea of his own, which is, of course, a gross parody of Ruby’s.   Being a good sport, Grandmother appreciates both mightily.  Following Max’s cake, is this similar, but much more artistic birthday cake of worms and fruit made by a boy hedgehog.

From Rosemary Wells, Bunny Cakes. New York: Scholastic, 1998, c.1997 (Cotsen unprocessed).

From Ana Walther, Borstel als Detektiv. Illustrated by Gerhard Rappus. Berlin: Verlage Junge Welt, 1990 (Cotsen 96609).

Is this all modern decadence?    Not likely. The elaborate modern birthday cake may be the descendant of the great plumb cakes (i.e. fruitcakes) prepared for Twelfth-Night parties.  Here is a late eighteenth-century engraving of a splendid one illustrating the title page of a collection of songs to be sung at holiday festivities.  The top of the cake is decorated with figures of all the characters listed on the title page and the sides are covered with ribbon swags, sprigs of leaves and other things which I guess are made of spun sugar.   Notice that the cake is so large it has to be placed on a small table with finger holes in the legs so it is  easy to transport from the kitchen to the drawing room.

Engraved title for the score of Reginald Spofforth’s The Twelfth Cake. London: Longman & Broderip, ca. 1793 (Cotsen 154502).

What curious minds want to know is, when in the nineteenth century did the light layer cake supplant the heavy, rich, fruitcake covered with royal icing?  A question for intense research!

Our donor Mr. Cotsen celebrated a birthday last weekend, so this post is dedicated to him…  Happy birthday, Mr. C.!

Jim Kay’s Wizarding World 2: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets begins with an assault on the reader.   Turn to page five and you are forced into Harry’s shoes, suddenly confronted by a large pair of green eyes staring fixedly between the leaves of the hedge.  How many of us involuntarily wanted to turn away or put out those eyes?Those startling pink-rimmed eyes belonged to Dobby the house elf, the first, least but bravest of Harry’s protectors in The Chamber of Secrets.  Look at Dobby’s eyes after reading the entire novel and they may look more watchful than malicious.

It’s the first of many images of wide open eyes (and references to eye sockets) in a story stalked by an unseen beast whose gaze kills.  The terror it arouses at Hogwarts is foreshadowed in the illustration at the end of The Philosopher’s Stone  that shows the reflection of Professor Quirrell lifting up a fold in the back of his turban to reveal the red eye of He Who Must Not Be Named.

At the climax of The Chamber of Secrets, Harry, with eyes shut tight in the dark, senses the stone serpents’ empty eye sockets tracking his movements.  Disarmed by Tom Riddle, who twirls his wand like a cat toying with a mouse, Harry is told how Ginny was the pawn in a scheme to entrap and destroy the boy she adores  Taunted by Riddle in an  attempt to break his spirit, Harry’s defiant insistence  that Dumbledore is the greater of the two wizards summons the phoenix Fawkes to the chamber Slytherin built.  What Riddle forgets is that Fawkes can blind with the basilisk with its beak and cure any mortal wound it inflicts with its tears.  The phoenix’s bravery reinvigorates Harry’s strength so he give the basilisk its death blow with Godric Gryffindor’s sword and thrust the monster’s fang into Riddle’s diary, unknowingly destroying the first Horcrux.

At their best, Kay’s illustrations capture the grandeur of an uneven story, one of whose functions is laying down material that will drive the complex plot forward in the series’ successive volumes (not unlike The Subtle Knife or The Two Towers).  From scene to scene, the shifts between low comedy and heroism are not always managed skillfully and some of that awkwardness is reflected in the pictures.

It’s quite noticeable in the illustrations of Dobby, a crucial supporting character who unites servility with unexpectedd bravery.  Like Hagrid, he speaks in an awkward dialect that demotes him to a caricature.  obby is  first compared to “an ugly rag doll” and Kay obliges with a picture of the house elf perched on the edge of Harry’s bed.  His pink slab of a lower lip, enormous pop eyes, huge ears fringed with fine bristles, and filthy feet with long untrimmed nails do not make him loveable, although his resemblance to a Frank Oz creature is unmistakable.  The equally unattractive portrait of Dobby cradling Harry’s filthy sock to his face (here pristine) gives the reader permission to laugh the moment of freedon from slavery.  More revelatory of Dobby’s toughness, loyalty, and misdirected ingenuity, is the vignette of him with the pillow case above his buttocks, intent on the destruction of Aunt Petunia’s pudding.   His appearance is off-putting but funny without being as hideous or ridiculous as in the other two pictures.

Creating portraits that blend the admirable with the risible was perhaps one of the biggest challenges the text presented to Kay.  Moaning Myrtle has a mug right out of a cartoon when a better model would have been Shirley Henderson, who playing the ghost in the film with a crafty yet infantile expression that was delectable.

More satisfying is the second of the two portraits of Mrs. Weasley, holding up a flower pot of Floo powder, her red hair in need of a good hair cut under the crumpled green witch’s hat.  Kay was perhaps justifiably a little cruel in his depiction of an older woman’s body, but Mrs. Weasley’s warm, unguarded expression makes her individual and likeable  without sacrificing the realistic edge.Kay proved he can do gross…  The sketchy picture of Ron vomiting slugs is followed with a full-page spread decorated with more slugs dragging trails of bright yellow bile.  The artist’s attempts to create something like cinematic special effects are more mixed than magical.  Harry’s figure on his maiden voyage on Floo powder should look as if it were speeding out of control instead of frozen in one moment (if indeed that’s posssible).  When Harry bursts through the window in Tom Riddle’s diary, he seems to have fallen into an Abstract Expressionist painting instead of a memory strategically selected by his nemesis.

The October 2016 publication date for The Chamber of Secrets must have obliged Kay to repeat himself, not having the time to realize more of those important but potentially difficult scenes like the magnificent aerial view of St. Pancras,  Hagrid making his way down Knockburn Alley, or the tense interview between Aragog, Harry, Ron, and Fang.  For my money, the three following illustrations are critical to establishing the novel’s mood (and play to  Kay’s strengths) than do the two pictures of Dudley stuffing his face or the crowds of garden gnomes, Cornish pixies, and spiders.Architectural subjects are one of Kay’s fortes.  Yet it is easy to understand  why he chose to draw a frieze of high relief figures disporting themselves delightfully in medieval bathrooms instead of the entrance the Chamber of Secrets.  Moaning Myrtle’s bathroom may be in desperate need of remodeling, but that sink cannot have survived intact after a thousand years’ of abuse by school children with magical powers.  More to the point, where is Dumbledore’s office, a scene tailor-made for Kay, which I would have been willing to trade for the four new blocks of Diagon Alley?  Why is there no stupendous view of the Chamber, with its columns, serpentine decorations, and ominous statue of Salazar Slytherin with the weedy beard down to his feet?  The spread with the basilisk’s gigantic moulted skin with small figures of Ron, Harry, and Lockhart in the middle distance is nothing more than a teaser.

Nor is it clear why there are no pictures anywhere of the two most important actors in the drama–Ginny Weasley with her vivid red hair and Tom Riddle.  Perhaps Kay was unable to find the right models in the time he had to complete the set of illustrations.  As wonderful as the pictures of Sir Patrick brandishing his severed head astride his skeletal steed, a rueful Hagrid, or the label for Skelegro are, they are no substitute for seeing the handsome, charming and utterly ruthless sixteen-year old shimmer in and out of focus.  Too many missed opportunities ultimately diminish the novel.  I wish the publisher had done away with most of the black pages, which are the equivalent of movie music that tells members of the audience what to feel, instead of trusting their imagination.  Sections with the pages specially patterned with shadowy outlines of snake scales, spider webs, lime green triangles, and imitation foxing don’t add enough to the reading experience to deprive readers of a chance to see Fawkes fly off with Harry, Ron, Ginny, and Lockhart, after those tantalizing pictures of soaring birds (and magical cars) in the novel’s opening chapters.  If it were up to me, I’d give Kay the time he needs to draw the illustrations The Prisoner of Azkhaban  that will bring the story to life.