A London Birthday Party in Stephen Jones’ The Oracles (1792)

One of the few eighteenth-century coaches to survive in original condition was this one, which belonged to the Beekman family coach around 1770.

Celebrating a child’s birthday at a social gathering was a late eighteenth-century trend that was rather controversial because it undercut the traditional Christian practice of reflecting on one’s life and choosing goals for the coming year.  Children’s books are an underutilized source for documenting the shift in attitudes towards birthdays and The Oracles, Containing some Particulars of the History of Billy and Kitty Wilson (London: E. Newbery, ca 1792) is a good example of showing a way to strike a balance between religious observance and fashionable entertainments.  It’s not a book that has received much scholarly attention, even though it was illustrated by John Bewick.  The author was probably Stephen Jones (1763-1827), who was Newbery family royalty, being the son of Giles Jones and nephew of Griffith Jones, who are believed to have collaborated with their employer and collaborator John Newbery on some of the firm’s most famous children’s books.

At the beginning of The Oracles, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson are mostly satisfied with the characters of their two children, except for their tendency to assume their judgement is as good as that of their parents.  While the Wilsons may take their responsibilities as parents very seriously, they are not so strict as all that, because on Billy’s seventh birthday, the family goes to London for a day of  sightseeing.  The high point of the day is to be a visit to the famous Speaking Figure, which could answer questions put to it in English, French, German and Italian between noon and nine o’clock in the evening, Monday through Saturday. Here are the Wilsons testing the Speaking Figure’s ability to communicate.  Billy is posing a question to the Figure by speaking into the trumpet inserted into its mouth.

For the Wilson party of four, admission was a shilling per person, which means attendance in the exhibition rooms was not nearly as expensive theater tickets–a single opera ticket would have cost 4 shillings.  But if Mr. Wilson were not sufficiently wealthy to keep his own coach, he also would have had to pay for round-trip transportation from their home in the country to the capital and after the Speaking Figure to their other destination, the Tower Zoo.  Zoo admission was six pence per person.  A meal in a tavern was probably also in order at some point during the outing as well.  Depending upon the family’s annual income,  Billy’s birthday outing may have taken a good portion of the Wilsons’ discretionary income for that month.

This fictional day trip was not the product of Jones’s imagination, but based on a London exhibition that had been on view between 1784 and 1786 and  attracted quite a bit of publicity.  The Frenchman who constructed the Speaking Figure imposed upon the public at major European cities by creating the illusion of conversations between doll and visitor with tubes concealed by the doll’s large feather headdress.  The deception was promptly exposed by Phillip Thicknesse in a pamphlet, which is illustrated with this diagram, showing how the figure operated.

So where does Stephen Jones stand on the question of birthday celebrations?  From one perspective, he tried to have his cake and eat it too.  The Wilsons did not take Billy and Kitty to gawk at the Speaking Figure, but to prepare them to participate in a  plan conceived to correct their most serious fault with minimal intervention from their parents.  Billy and Kitty’s delight in the Speaking Figure is so great that the Wilsons promise to install in the house two speaking figures, who will serve as the children’s personal advisors.

Experiences at home and at school quickly teach Billy and Kitty that their oracles always had their best interests in mind and after a few trials, they trust the oracles so much that they follow the figures’ advice to the letter.  At that point, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson step up and reveal that they have been voicing the so-called oracles from the very beginning, with the result that the children transfer their trust to their parents, where it should have been all along.

Jones was on thin ice here.   He seems to have been leaning towards the approach of French educators like Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Mme de Genlis, who justified the deception of children if the ends of a ruse justified the means.  On the other hand, Jones is also suggesting that a birthday celebration that is both entertaining and improving is appropriate.   It  seems to have been possible for the day to be associated with pleasure as well as reflection and moral growth–at least at some remove from the big day.

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.!