Gingerbread has been a favourite confection since at least mediaeval times. One can find frequent references to the occupation of gingerbread bakers or gingerbread women, whose wares were sold from shops, at markets and fairs, at coronations (as can be seen from the advert above) and even at executions – Hogarth’s ‘The Idle Prentice executed at Tyburn’ features Tiddy Doll, a famous itinerant gingerbread seller, in the bottom right-hand corner.
You can see from the picture that the gingerbread we are talking about here was in the form of small discs. Joan Trask, Ben Johnson’s gingerbread seller in the play Bartholomew Fair, seems to be selling gingerbread in the form of figures – what we would today call gingerbread men – from the reference to them as ‘gingerbread progeny’, although hers are made of ‘stale bread, rotten eggs, musty ginger, and dead honey’. Some rather more appealing ingredients are included in this recipe from a late seventeenth-century recipe book:
Two Pounds of Treacle 2 ounces of raze [grated] Ginger 3 Quarters of a Pound of Sugar 3 Quarters of Butter a Quarter of a Pint of Brandy as much Flower [flour] as will make these ingredients stiff. (MS.7851, Wellcome Collection)
Catherine Godfrey’s recipe from the same period is a little more specific about the method; this is for ‘gingerbread cakes’, but seems still to be referring to biscuits:
Take three pound of flower one pound shugar both well dryed a quarteen of butter rubed in fine one nutmegg two ounces of pouderd ginger two pound of treacle mix them well into a light past, make them in little cakes as great as you please & bake them in a quick oven, they must be set upon tin plates if you please to put in some sweetmeats oronge & citron they will be the better. (MS.7999, Wellcome Collection)
‘Mrs Denny’s way is to ‘make it up in a paste to role out and put them upon pieces of paper, prick it and bake itt’ (MS.MSL.2, Wellcome Collection) and Mary Faussett says you can ‘make it up in what shape you please’ (MS.7999, Wellcome Collection). Moulds were sometimes used for this purpose, as in this earlier recipe for ‘gingerbread of allmonds’, which uses quite different ingredients from the previous ones:
Take allmonds blansh & beate them to perfett past with ginger as you doe for marchpane [marzipan] stufe then take a litle powder of cinemon & ginger anyseede lycoris & a litle rosewatter mould itt print them with moulds & gilde them. (MS.144, Wellcome Collection)
The reference to gilding is to decoration added by painting with egg white and then gold leaf, although on occasion this was a dangerous practice, as in this nineteenth-century explanation:
It may be here remarked generally, that for various species of gilding, an article known by the name of Orsidue, Dutch metal, Dutch Leaf and Dutch Foil is very frequently used… The composition of this imitation of gold leaf is not generally known; but there is good reason to believe, that it is extensively manufactured in England, as hundreds of tons have been exported to India… In England and elsewhere, it is used by the Jews, to gild picture frames: likewise by the lower class of bookbinders and painters, in coarse gilding. It is also put on ribbons, and on toys, dolls and gingerbread for children: but the use of this poisonous material for gilding gingerbread and sweetmeats, cannot be too much reprobated. (One Thousand Experiments in Chemistry, Colin MacKenzie, London, 1822)
The majority of recipe for gingerbread in the manuscript collections I have studied are for the biscuit variety, but, although I haven’t tried it, I’m tempted to think that the following recipe and its variation would make something rather more like a cake.
Tak one pottle of flower rub in a pound of Butter put in one ounce of ginger one ounce of culliander [coriander] seed one ounce of carriway seed a quarter of a pound of six penny sugger half a pound of orings & Lemon pill [peel] canded then wet it with a pound & half of treacle let them stand in the oven one hour.
Marginal note: Mrs Wroths was half a pound of sugar three ounces of Ginger two nutmegs & a half grated no seeds nor sweetmeats but when these things was mixed then melt your butter in hast & put it in as also your Treacle & a quarter of a pint of cream a quick oven les then half an hour will bake it. (MS.8575, Wellcome Collection)
I’m not sure what variety is being referred to in this final example, but it shows that gingerbread had other uses!
When the Convicts were lately carry’d on board a Ship at Limehouse-Hole, in order to be transported to Virginia, some few of them it seems were rich enough to lay in a little Geneva and Gingerbread for a Viaticum; and a Gingerbread Cake belonging to one Dalton, (who was once before transported, and whose Father was hang’d) was accidentally broke up, in which there was a File so well bak’d, that none of their Hand-Cuffs could long withstand its Operation; upon this Discovery he was ty’d to the Geers, and dealt with in a Manner that is sometimes found necessary on board; but we do not find that he hath made any Confession, so that it pass’d for an Act of some Relation or Friend of his without his Privity. (Daily Post, August 15, 1721)
A likely story…