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Cake Boards
by William Woys Weaver

Note: This article is copied from the February 2001 issue of Early American Life magazine.
For a marvelous website, full of excellent photos and information about cake and cookie boards, check out this site. If you are wondering why this topic is included on this website, it is because there are similar cookies (made with molds and stamps) made by Greek and Middle Eastern Christians, but I have yet to find any interesting ethnographic articles explaining them.


Early American bakers would probably chuckle to themselves if they could see these utensils today. Who could have guessed that those well-oiled companions to cookie and gingerbread bakers would someday graduate from the flour-dusted work tables of old-time bakeries to a place of pride on the walls of collectors and home decorators alike? Yes, the cake board is now an art object, and the fascinating story of how this happened is only part of its perennial interest as an example of two crafts fused into one: the art of carving, and the creative ways the carvings were employed to shape edible works of art in dough.

The origin of the cake board can be traced to antiquity. Molds, or "prints," as they were often called in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were originally used to imprint pictures of gods and other symbols onto the surface of flat breads and honey cakes. The molds were made of many materials--wood, ceramic, even bronze--but since they were special tools for very special foods, they were not common, and, of course, the wooden ones wore out quickly. For this reason the ancient molds are now quite rare, although they are not impossible to find.

Due to Egypt's dry climate, even some wooden molds have survived there, and enough major museums have collections to give us some idea of the range of motifs and carving styles. For example, a wooden mold from Alexandria, now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England, depicts a Roman eagle together with other imperial symbols. It was probably a bread stamp for the special loaves baked for the military. Another mold in the same collection depicts the demi-god Hercules wrestling with a lion and was used to print images on cakes or small breads dispensed by temple priests as mementoes to pilgrims who went there to seek some favor from the deity.

This religious connection is important because the early Christian church borrowed the idea but used Christian symbols instead, such as a cross or a fish. There are numerous examples of Christian cake prints from the Byzantine period; the Greek church still uses carved wooden prints to impress images of saints on the prosphoron, the loaf of bread used during communion. In the Roman Catholic tradition, similar images were stamped on wafers. In both cases, the carved molds or prints were generally done in monasteries, so the commercial cake boards of later times actually trace their genealogies to the small religious carvings done in cloisters during the Middle Ages.

Religious themes dominated cake boards until the Renaissance, when a full panoply of new images emerged and the whole business of making the boards became part of standard training for commercial bakers. The boards themselves also grew larger and larger, some capable of making gingerbread figures the size of small children. Special baking tools were required for moving dough that size, and the ovens must have been very large. Even the cake boards made later in colonial and nineteenth-century America were really tools for professionals, although some households owned small boards. Christmas and New Year's were the most popular seasons for making large cookies and gingerbreads. (The cool, dry air of winter is much better suited to baking than summer.) Cakes and cookies were also ornamented with icings that were colored and applied like paints so that the cake figures were not only richly covered with raised patterns, they were also eye-stopping brilliant with an array of realistic colors, even gold leaf.

In Europe, knowledge of mold carving became part of one's apprenticeship as a baker, so virtually every gingerbread baker also knew how to make his own molds. The array of subjects was enormous: love motifs for weddings, commemorative designs inaugurating a new bridge or sailing ship, war heroes, and a wide array of small figures to be hung on Christmas trees or stood up in windows as ornaments. The center of this carving tradition was German-speaking Europe, and there are still bakeries today that sell both ornamented cakes and molds, although more likely than not the molds are copies of old ones. The bakery of the Staib family in Ulm, Germany, is well known for its large collection of cake boards. The Cafe Schober in Zurich, Switzerland, sells ornamented cookies nearly year-round. One of the finest mold collections in Europe can be found in the ethnographic museum in Torun, Poland, a city also famous for gingerbreads. For Americans traveling abroad, these are all destinations well worth a visit, especially for learning how to tell good molds from poor ones, Closer to home, the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, houses one of the finest mold collections in the country.

So what makes a mold good? As an art form, mold carving reached its peak in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. A close look at molds from this period reveals an unusual preoccupation with fine detail, an almost lacelike quality to some of the designs, and a delicacy of style not found in later molds. As baking became mechanized in the nineteenth century, mold carving declined. Bakers used more and more copies of old molds rather than create new patterns. The style of carving became coarse, and many molds were "carved" by the same type of machines used to make carvings on mass-produced furniture. This evolution also took place in America, although native molds have their own special place; some of our early carvers rivaled the best of Europe.

Naturally, many immigrant bakers brought cake boards with them. But since there was no apprenticeship system in place that taught carving as a requirement for receiving certification as a master baker, mold carving was found only in areas where gingerbread baking was well established by the eighteenth century: the areas settled by Germans in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and especially in New York's Hudson Valley, where Dutch baking traditions were transplanted in colonial times. The New Year's cake, a large cookie made of stiff white dough, became a symbol of regional culture in lower New York State and especially New York City, where a New Year's open house was once a feature of local hospitality and the ornamental cookies were a standard part of the menu.

Molds created in New York were often elaborate and large, depicting major events of the day or simply embellished with symbols of luck and the new year. One of the most famous mold makers was John Conger, who was actually a baker by trade, but who oversaw a workshop of carvers in New York City that created some of the finest molds made in this country. Conger's period of activity ran from about 1825 to 1845. When he went out of business, mold carving was carried on by his successors, James Y. Watkins, William Hart, and others. Watkins in particular copied many older Conger motifs using mechanical carving devices that more or less gouged out the designs rather than carving them with the clear crispness of Conger's. Until the 1890s, machine-made molds were still common some carrying the mark of D.B. Lauder, a mold carver about whom little is known. All of these makers sold both fiat boards (normally carved on both sides) as well as roller-type molds that produced ornamented cookies in strips. Conger molds have often survived in better shape than most because he used dense Honduran mahogany, which held up better under repeated washings.

I have often been asked how the molds were used for making such large cookies. The answer is simple: just like springerle cookies, except that the boards and dough were kept very cold (probably on ice), and from time to time the wood was lightly wiped with highly processed olive oil--the flavorless French olive oil preferred by most confectioners in the nineteenth century. The large molds were either put into a press resembling a linen press so that the dough could be spread evenly under the mold, or else the dough was rolled over the mold by hand with long, specially designed rolling pins. The imprinted image was then turned out and trimmed with a knife.

Obviously, such baking techniques require a good deal of training and experience, especially in judging the thickness of the dough so that the cake does not warp or crack while it bakes. The lack of well-trained apprentices in this country led to further innovation by American manufacturing confectioners, as cooking implement makers were then called. Here I should mention cast-iron cake molds--usually very small for home use--and the pewter alloy molds made for professional bakers by George Endriss of Philadelphia. Endriss is especially well known for his metal springerle boards, which copy popular German motifs of the 1870s and 1880s. His metal molds can still be found at antiques shows, and unlike the Conger molds, which demand high prices, they are still fairly affordable. For the collector who wants to hang a fine Conger mold in the dining room, a word of caution: unscrupulous individuals are now putting his name on molds that did not come from his shop, so before investing several thousand dollars in a name, it would be wise to double-check the authenticity of the piece.

All of this would bring a smile to John Conger's face. For the bakers of old, the molds were merely tools, as monochromatic as a photographic negative, and no more interesting than a bucket. To their eyes, it was the cake itself that was the art. And seeing people eat their large ornamental cookies with gusto was doubtless the best reward they could expect. However, the old-time saying that the eye eats first gets turned topsy-turvy when it comes to cake boards, for now the eye can only feast in wonder at a time when people knew the meaning of real food turned out like the finest sort of frieze-work sculpture. Dark from use, worn around the edges, nonetheless these old molds possess a charm of their own, capturing a moment's frivolity from a long time ago.