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.!

Interactive Books for Kids: A Not So “New New Thing”

Sing-A-Song Player Book (McLoughlin Bros., Springfield, Mass., c. 1938) Cotsen 7158175

“Interactivity” is one of the bywords of new media and contemporary books of all sorts. It’s hard to read a book review or an article about books or publishing these days without finding some reference to interactivity or mention of an interactive, online adjunct to a printed book. A quick Google search for “interactive books” turns up a whopping 158 million results! Included in the list are: Android apps, iPad items, and yes, even some now relatively”old-format” computer-based books, as well as interactive versions of novels, plays, and poems.

Children’s books are a particularly fertile area for interactivity too. A slightly refined Google search for “interactive books for kids” returns over 56 million items. But interactive books for children are hardly a new idea, or even a fundamentally technology-based phenomenon. From the early days of publications intended for children, interactive aspects have been common. Books with volvelles, flap-books, “magic transformation” books, pop-up books, and various drawing and coloring books were seen by publishers as both appealing and educational offerings for child readers (and their book-buying parents).

Foreword to Sing-a-Song Playerbook with instructions and list of songs below

McLoughlin Brothers, a pioneering publisher of children’s books, games, educational toys, and novelties was finely attuned to the market — and to helping create a market via extensive and persuasive advertising. Thus, it’s hardly surprising to find a wide variety of their interactive items for children in the Cotsen collection; pop-up books, panoramas, books that open up to create a zoo or circus toy, as well as many instances of drawing and coloring books abound.

An unusual example of a McLoughlin item that spans the genres of books and toys is the 1938 Sing-a-Song Playerbook. It has the appearance of a book and has some reading matter and music, but it actually functions as a musical toy. The cover displays some characteristic features of McLoughlin books of the time: bright colors in a visually arresting style, color-printed illustrations, and, of course, a depiction of children having fun. Children have always liked seeing and reading about other children; grown-ups, while they have their roles in children’s literature, are just too boring on their own!

Detail of xylophone and playing mallet (Note the numbers on the individual xylophone bars, which correspond to notes on the simplified musical scores shown below).

But this spiral-bound item — for which McLoughlin sought a patent — is more than a book. Take a look at the small xylophone that’s visible though the cover. It comes complete with its own small wooden mallet for playing, which still remains with the book — a survival that’s somewhat amazing some eighty years after publication.

The interior pages of the book feature bright process-printed  illustrations of children (generally presented in characteristic 1930s clothing), facing pages with a song and a simplified musical score, which a child could play on the xylophone in a “play-by-number” manner — and perhaps sing along to, since all the songs have lyrics. Instructions on the Table of Contents page (shown above) instruct a child how to use the book. But McLoughlin’s accompanying Forward section disclaims the “teaching of technical music.” The goal of the book is instead to “provide an interesting medium” for the “sheer joy of doing.”  “Delight” is usually the dominant aspect of the firm’s “Teach and Delight motto in their publications for children.

A variety of traditionally popular children’s songs are featured in the Sing-a-Song Playerbook, from “Jack & Jill” to “London Bridges Falling Down” to “Jingle Bells,” all accompanied by illustrations providing a window (however idealized) onto how children looked and how childhood was depicted in the late 1930s.  It’s a world where boys wore short pants and girls wore skirts or jumpers (and when “men wore hats,” as John Cheever once noted.)

“Jack & Jill” with children clothed in period 1930s attire.

Playing “London Bridge is Falling Down” on an idyllic summer day.

“Jingle Bells” and a nostalgic depiction of Christmas fun.

McLoughlin Brothers thought the Sing-a-Song Playerbook sufficiently novel to feature it in an advertising flyer for booksellers: “McLoughlin Brothers Money Makers, 1938,” which touts the Playerbook as: “Unique! Entertaining! Low Priced! Appealing! Handsome! A Sure Fire Hit!” All music to a retailer’s ears. Note that the firm’s Zoo Book-Toy is also highlighted as “the book that becomes a toy!” — another variation of the interactive book format.

“McLoughlin Money Makers, Fall 1938” (Cotsen 97060)

And the Sing-a-Song Playerbook did indeed seem to have been a hit. A later McLoughlin retail flyer (presumably from 1939) advertises a sequel, The Second Sing-a-Song Playerbook, and notes that the original sold over 400,000 copies in nine months, a staggering sales volume for a children’s novelty item in 1938, especially one priced at $1.25 in a time when many McLoughlin books sold for a quarter!  And take a look at McLoughlin’s PR-speak: ” musical notes play a profit tune,” “more a gift than just a book could be,” “appeals to children from six to sixty.” (Hmmm…)

“Second Sing-A-Song Player Book” advertising flyer (1939) Cotsen 96882

The Sing-a-Song Playerbook and McLoughlin’s marketing materials for it combine to provide a window onto childhood at the time, the marketing of children’s books, and what was new and exciting in terms of interactive material for children. But by themselves, the book or advertising materials tell only part of the story. It’s only by looking at them together that we can really see how publishing and marketing were combined by the premier American publisher of children’s books of the era. Providing context for the books and how they were presented to the public is one of the real values of publisher’s advertisement and publisher’s catalogs, which, as ephemera, often weren’t saved and reused in the way children’s books themselves were.  Cotsen Library has one of the largest collections of McLoughlin Brothers publisher’s catalogs and advertising flyers, which are the subject of a an ongoing digital project now.  Stay tuned for more on that in a subsequent blog posting…

To see some glorious French interactive books, see the on-line exhibition on Pere Castor