The History of Birthday Cake

The History of Birthday Cake

the history of birthday cakes

When I did a bit of research about the origins of the birthday cake I found out that they’ve been an integral part of celebrations in Western culture since the middle of the 19th century, and traditionally it usually features a written message and candles to suggest the age of the recipient. We’ve come a LONG way since then, in a pretty short space of time.

There appear to be three schools of thought as to where birthday cakes originate. Some believe that they can be dated back as far as the Ancient Romans. Others believe it can be traced back to the ancient Greeks who made round or moon shaped honey cakes to be taken to the temple of Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon. Finally, some scholars believe that the tradition of birthday cake started in Germany in the Middle Ages where sweetened bread dough was made in the shape of baby Jesus in swaddling cloth, and was used to commemorate his birthday. The one thing they do all manage to agree on however is that these original birthday cakes were said to be more like sweet breads in a flat round shape made with flour, nuts, yeast and honey. Im sure they were lovely at the time, but as we all know, the development of these cakes has come a long way with confectionary advancement.

According to food historians, it was during the 17th century, that the birthday cake started to take its more contemporary form. This was mainly due to the development of technology, meaning that materials and food became more advanced and accessible. However, these more elaborately decorated cakes, with more than layer were only available to the very wealthy.

By all acounts, the first icing that was used to decorate cakes was usually a boiled composition of the finest available sugar, egg whites and flavours. The icing used to be poured on the cake and then it was put back into the oven for a while. When the cake was finally taken out, the icing cooled quickly to form a hard glossy ice-like covering. Over time, the art of baking cakes kept progressing and it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that the kind of birthday cake we know of today was developed. The taste and appearance of the cake was enhanced with extra-refined white flour and the use of baking powder instead of yeast. Phew!

the history of birthday cake

The tradition of adding candles to the top of a birthday cake is also up for discussion. Some suggest it’s attributed to early Greeks, who used to place lit candles on cakes to make them glow like the moon. The cakes would then be taken as an offering to the temple of Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon. Some scholars say that candles were placed on the cake because people believe that the smoke of the candle carried their wishes and prayers to Gods who lived in the skies. Others believe that the custom originated in Germany where people used to place a large candle in the centre of the cake to symbolize ‘the light of life’. After time the German tradition culminated in Kinderfest which was an 18th Century birthday celebration held for children. The tradition at the time was to place candles for each year of the recipient’s life with some added candles to indicate luck in upcoming years. The origin and significance of blowing out the candles is unknown, however it’s common practice for the birthday person to try to blow out all the candles in one go and make a secret wish.

Another common ritual of birthday cakes in English speaking countries is the singing of ‘Happy Birthday To You’. This song was popularized in the early 1900’s and until that point the words ‘Happy Birthday’ didn’t appear on birthday cakes at all.

And finally here we are in the modern day, and this is where the fun of decorating birthday cakes really starts! No longer are we limited to a sweetened flat bread in the shape of baby Jesus, or even the classic white iced cake with ‘Happy 40th Birthday Roger’ piped on the top along with a few royal icing scrolls. I’ve done some fantastically unusual cakes in my time, some of which have been my creation, and some have come from the brilliant ideas of my customers. These days birthday cake designs really are quite limitless as we have so many skills and products to choose from.

The choice, as they say, is yours.

Sherry x


This blog was originally written by me for the wonderful guys over at Occasion Maker, who are a fab company that take the stress out of marketing your cake company.