Betty Crocker’s Drum Cake from Her Classic Cook Book for Boys and Girls (1957)

“If you use your cook book often I can promise you real fun and lots of good things to eat,” Betty Crocker told her young readers.  And she was as good as her word.  The last chapter, “Rules,”  which ought to have been first because it introduced the basics of kitchen safety, measuring, equipment, and vocabulary came after the recipes.  The book led off instead with “Extra Special,”  cakes, cookies, candies, and beverages “good things to make for parties—for holidays—for your friends—and just for fun.”   Betty may have been a corporate construct, but she was no fool.. She shrewdly figured more children would be lured into the kitchen to  stir up a batch of brownies than a pan of mac and cheese.  Her  beginners and their sweet-teeth learned right off the bat how to  grease and flour pans, use a spatula to scrape the last of the batter out of the mixing bowl, and test a cake for doneness  with straightforward recipes for chocolate sheet cake, cocoa fudge cake, and yellow layer cake.  Recipes and directions for frosting a cake followed, strategically placed to build confidence before introducing the delectable subsection of party cakes.

.The soldier with the marching side drum in Archibald Willard’s “The Spirit of ‘76” (1876) could have been the inspiration for this drum cake, which would bring the family Fourth of July picnic to a cracking conclusion.   It didn’t have to be made  from scratch: Betty Crocker’ mixes would save energy for the all-important job of decoration.   To imitate the zig-zag rope tensioning around the drum’s chocolate devil’s food shell, a pattern of peppermint sticks and maraschino cherries had to be pressed into the thick glossy coat of pure white fluffy icing.

Could eight- to twelve-year-olds, General Mills’ target audience, actually make this cake? Yes,  because a group of home testers,  eight girls and four boys identified on page 6, cooked every dish.  Tester Bette Anne explained that “We had to say if things were easy or hard and did they taste good.”  Veto power was in their hands. “ If we didn’t like it,” said tester Chris, “Betty Crocker didn’t put it in this book.”   The children’s comments were run above the lower margins and they designate the dishes they would make again, offered helpful hints, identified skills they wanted to polish, and even conceded the vegetable recipes were tasty.  The home testers were real kids who lived in Cranbury, New Jersey, but they would have been at home on Klickitat Street.  They made the book for many of the baby boomers who have hung on to their treasured dogeared, sticky copies.The editorial team that compiled Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls in the decade after World War II saw the kitchen as a space where budget-conscious meals were made with what was on hand.  Dinnertime came once a day, not once a year like taxes. As family members, kids were expected to help out with meal preparation, but they were also invited to be creative in the kitchen.  If a child wanted to surprise the family with a heart cake for Mother’s  or Valentine’s Day, a special shaped pan wasn’t necessary, with an 8-inch round and 8-inch square pan around.  Mother didn’t have to hover because the young baker could be trusted to have enough good sense to get the pans in and out of the hot oven and cut up the cooled cakes with a long sharp knife without accident.   It’s easy to point fingers at the outdated gender roles in the illustrations, like the exclusion of girls from the campfire cooking chapter or the insensitive representation of Indigenous and people of color in this cook book. Fifty-odd years out, I could not help but be struck at how refreshing it was  to see no signs of extravagant consumption signaling wealth and privilege— a batterie de cuisine, countertops full of appliances, a gastronomic library of print and on-line resources, shelves of ingredients from around the world—that so much of today’s more sophisticated home cooking depends upon upon.   Cakes made with butter taste better than ones made with hydrogenated shortening or from a mix, but Betty Crocker’s drum cake from 1957 is still within the means of more people than the birthday cake dreamed up for  a children’s birthday party in The Best of Gourmet (2005).I read and reread my well-thumbed copy of Betty Crocker  until I had perfect recall of all the color plates of the iconic party cakes.  I never made one of them. If the results were likely to fall short of the pictures, I was too intimidated to try.  Even if I hadn’t been daunted by the food styling, I  knew my health-conscious mother would nix the drum cake, because it required hard candy and maraschino cherries, full of sugar and red dye number 2.  She probably would have pointed out that the cake wouldn’t taste as good as it looked and I would have been reluctant to admit she was probably right.  Better to never bring up the subject than to concede the field later.   Or offer a face-saving explanation is that the cake construction gene skipped a generation.  My daughter or nieces down under would tackle a drum cake  in a heart’s beat as child’s play.   All I have to do is ask.

Here’s a Ball for Baby

Cleaning house during the Firestone Renovation led to the discovery of treasures like this one.   To be truthful, Ian and I didn’t know what it was.  But it couldn’t be described more fully until we figured it out, taking advantage of the opportunities presented by internet searching to follow leads and make connections.

Cotsen 31857

Cotsen 31857

I’ve been working on processing collections material that needs to be moved out of a space that will be demolished during the renovation. Much of this material is unprocessed, otherwise under-described, or not accessioned. It’s been tedious work, but I’ve managed to blow the dust off some great items and uncover some diamonds in the rough.

One such surprisingly delightful item has been Baby’s Ball (pictured above), which I came across the other day. It’s a stuffed textile ball which includes a nursery rhyme accompanying 6 lithographed illustrations. The initial record for the item didn’t have much information. But after some careful sleuthing, Andrea and I were able to discover a lot about this Victorian baby toy.

Each illustration is accompanied by 2 descriptive lines of verse, one above and one below the image. We started our investigation when Andrea noticed that this nursery rhyme was vaguely familiar:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“Here’s a ball for baby, nice and soft and round / here’s the baby’s hammer, hear the baby pound / here’s the baby’s soldiers, standing in a row / here’s the baby’s trumpet, hear the baby blow / don’t take the ball away, to make baby cry / here’s the baby’s cradle, to rock baby by”

At first, we found several versions of the rhyme on the web, but no attribution or history. It was most commonly referenced as a finger play, a nursery rhyme or other simple song that one also performs with hand motions. Itsy Bitsy Spider is probably the most familiar example. Frustratingly, though the song appears so well known, we couldn’t locate it in any of our reference books on early nursery rhymes.

But then we finally hit pay dirt! Andrea found that the original version of the nursery rhyme is attributed to Emilie Poulsson in her book, Finger plays for nursery and kindergarten (Boston : Lothrop Publishing Company, c1893) under the title “All For Baby”. This book, it just so happens, is in the Cotsen collection:

finger plays cover

Front cover, 86551

page38

page 38

page39

Page 39

page40

Page 40

Though we were able to learn more about the ball’s verse by locating a related item from Cotsen’s own collection; this didn’t help use discover any information about the toy’s manufacture. That information came from a much less likely source: eBay.

While looking for information on our Baby’s Ball, I stumbled across an auction listing for: Antique Dated 1900 Art Fabric Mills Cloth Rag Doll BABY’S BALL Rare Uncut NR yqz. At first it didn’t look pertinent. But after scrolling down the page I realized that the item for sale was an original uncut cloth pattern sheet for the very same ball now in our collection. From this eBay listing, we were not only able to learn about the manufacturer and dates of the item, but that it was probably stitched together and stuffed at home, after the purchase of the uncut sheet.

Below, I’ve Included 2 pictures from that eBay listing for reference. But you can click on the link above to see the original listing which includes more pictures of the uncut sheet.

Uncut sheet for Baby's Ball

Uncut sheet for Baby’s Ball

Patent and manufacturer

Patent and manufacturer

We started with no information on a cute Victorian cloth ball and a vaguely familiar nursery rhyme. We ended up with a fully described Baby’s Ball (New York : Art Fabric Mills, 1900) which borrows (liberally) from a well-known finger play originally written by Emilie Poulsson in her book Finger plays for nursery and kindergarten, just 7 years before the pattern for the ball was patented. In short, it was a fun day at Cotsen doing research on collections material.

Purely for your edification, I’ve embedded a video performance of the finger play as well:

This video comes from the YouTube channel WCCLS Birth2Six, where a few more finger plays have also been acted out.