18th Century Gingerbread

Last updated: Oct 21, 2022

Eighteenth-century recipes for (and references to) gingerbread. While there is some variation among the recipes – especially in terms of the combinations of spices and other flavorings – most seem to result in more of a dense cake or bread. But there are a few for the rolled-out style of gingerbread we generally think of as “gingerbread” today, like the recipes for Dutch gingerbread in The Whole Duty of a Woman or A New and Easy Method of Cookery.

In addition to 18th century gingerbread recipes, this page also features information about gilt gingerbread, gingerbread nuts, and Lafayette Gingerbread.

Gilt gingerbread

Several 18th century and early 19th century references still describe “gilt gingerbread” – a confection more often to be purchased, rather than home-made. The gingerbread was molded into a shape (often a doll-like figure), gilt, and sold.

This is not new in the 18th century. Elsewhere on this website, you can find bakers’s molds from the 7th-17th centuries. Jonson’s comedy Bartholomew Fair, first staged in the first quarter of the 17th century, features Joan Trash, a gingerbread-woman (that is, of course, a woman who sells gingerbread, not one who is made of gingerbread); she quarrels with a Lanthorn Leatherhead, a toy-seller, in Act II, Scene I:

Leath. The Fair’s pestilence dead methinks; people come not abroad to-day, whatever the matter is. Do you hear, sister Trash, lady of the basket? sit farther with your gingerbread progeny there, and hinder not the prospect of my shop, or I’ll have it proclaimed in the Fair, what stuff they are made on.

Trash.Why, what stuff are they made on, brother Leatherhead? nothing but what’s wholesome, I assure you.

Leath.Yes, stale bread, rotten eggs, musty ginger, and dead honey, you know. … I shall mar your market, old Joan.

Trash. Mar my market, thou too-proud pedlar! do thy worst, I defy thee, I, and thy stable of hobby-horses. I pay for my ground, as well as thou dost; an thou wrong’st me, for all thou art parcel-poet, and an inginer, I’ll find a friend shall right me, and make a ballad of thee, and thy cattle all over. Are you puft up wit hthe pride of your wares? your arsedine?

Leath. Go to, old Joan, I’ll talk with you anon; and take you down too, afore justice Overdo: he is the man must charm you, I’ll have you in the Pie-poudres.

Trash. Charm me! I’ll meet thee face to face, afore his worship, when thou darest: and htough I be a little crooked o’ my body, I shall be found as upright in my dealing as any woman in Smithfield, I; charm me! …

(A number of People pass over the Stage.)

Leath. What do you lack? what is’t you buy? what do you lack? rattles, drums, halberts, horses, babies o’ the best, fiddles of the finest? …

Trash. Buy any gingerbread, gilt gingerbread!

Gingerbread dolls would continue to be sold at Bartholomew Fairs through the 18th century, and at other fairs throughout England as well. Memoirs of Bartholomew Fair describes one of the notable gingerbread-sellers there:

There is a man here named Ford, who was famous in Bartholomew Fair and in London by the name that his cry gave him, of Tiddy Doll the Gingerbread Baker. His disappearance from his usual station in the Haymarket in 1752 (when he was gone among the country fair) gave rise to a Grub-street halfpenny account of his murder, which produced a week’s wealth to its publisher. The annexed sketch of him is by Hogarth, who introduces him into the picture of the Idle Apprentice executed at Tyburn.

Further description of Tiddy Doll (even a musical notation for his “harangues to gain customers” and the ballad he sang), can be found in The Every-Day Book. An 1806 print by James Gillray echoes old Tiddy Doll in a satirical print of Napoleon as “Tiddy-Doll, the great French gingerbread-baker; drawing out a new batch of kings – his man, Hopping Talley, mixing up the dough.”

Some other assorted references to gilt gingerbread:

  • “But here, in the present case, to carry on the volant metaphor, (for I must either be merry, or mad) here is a pretty little Miss just come out of her hanging sleeve-coat, brought to buy a pretty little fairing; for the world, Jack, is but a great fair, thou knowest; and, to give thee serious reflection for serious, all it’s joys but tinselled hobby-horses, gilt gingerbread, squeaking trumpets, painted drums, and so-forth.” (Clarissa: or, the history of a young lady, 1748)
  • Mr. L. Well, but you could buy apples or gingerbread at the town, I suppose, if you had money?
    B. O—I can get apples at home; and as for gingerbread, I don’t mind it much, for my mammy gives me a pye now and then, and that is good.” (The Young Philosopher, Evenings at Home, 1793.)
  • “There happened to be a lively little Girl about Six Years old, playing in the Hall; I called her to me, and made her my Friend, by the Means of some gilt Gingerbread that was selling at the Door.” (A Series of Genuine Letters Between Henry and Frances, 1770)

Was the “gilding” effect convincing? Not entirely. In contrasting gilt woodwork in Italy and England, Walter Harte (in Essays on Husbandry, 1764) writes that “Italian gilding on wood is so much better than ours, which has often a tarnished spungy cast, and looks like gilt gingerbread.” Furthermore, the substances used to gild gingerbread were poisonous (One Thousand Experiments in Chemistry, 1822) and bad for the teeth (see Orthopaedia, 1743).

The cookbooks of Martha Washington and Elizabeth Moxon both feature recipes for “printed” gingerbreads – that is, imprinted using a carved wooden mold. If you plan to re-create the effect of gilt gingerbread, you could use the edible gold leaf currently made for gilding cakes and chocolates.

Gingerbread nuts

The Memoirs of Bartholomew Fair recalls that, circa 1760,

There lived about this time a popular Merry-Andrew, who sold Gingerbread nuts in the neighbourhood of Covent Garden, and because he received a guinea a-day for his fun during the Fair, he was at pains never to cheapen himself by laughing, or by noticing a joke, during the other three hundred and sixty-two days of the year.

Richard Graves, in his Lucubrations (1786), recalls another gingerbread-seller:

I had long entertained a tender regard for an amiable, middle-aged woman, in the mercantile line of life; but, knowing her husband, though an honest, worthy man, to be rather inclinedto jealousy, I never gave the fair one any other token of my attachment, than by buying now and then some gingerbread nuts of her, which I never eat; or half a dozen oranges, which I did not want: for, as she is no longer the object of my amorous wishes, I will make no secret of her place of residence, in short, she sells gingerbread at the foot of Black Fryars Bridge.

This comely matron had sometimes disgusted me, by thrusting out an handsome foot and instep, disfigured by an awkward man’s shoe, at the side of her basket. This, however, as it raised some compassion for her humble situation, rather operated in her favour. But going by, earlier than usual, one frosty morning, I saw my fair one wrapt up in a horseman’s coat, and smoking a long pipe (a short one would have been less masculine) which so far disconcerted me, that the mists of passion were immediately dispelled; and the poor woman lost both my love and my custom.

From this trifling incident, then, I would take occasion to exhort those fair ladies in a higher sphere of life—who, though they do not sell gingerbread, yet exhibit their charms for the approbation of the best, or most agreeable purchaser;—I would exhort them, by all means, to avoid every thing that is bold and masculine, in their dress, their air, their language, and in their whole external deportment.

A recipe for Gingerbread Cakes or Nuts can be found in Every Woman Her Own House-Keeper; there are also Gingerbread Nuts in Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, by [Eliza Leslie,] a Lady of Philadelphia.

What about Lafayette Gingerbread?

There are several references to a recipe for “Lafayette Gingerbread,” supposedly made by Mary Ball Washington, George Washington’s mother, for General Lafayette in the 1780s (see Mount Vernon, Nola.com, Saveur, and Cooks Recipes). While I cannot support the attribution of this recipe as anything more than a legend, finding no contemporary accounts of either the recipe or any meeting between Lafayette and Mrs. Washington, I will leave it to the reader to compare “her” recipe to those described in the 18th century cookbooks above. An article in the Journal Sentinel (December 20, 2006) provides some background for this (probably incorrect) attribution:

In the [19th] century, “Eliza Leslie … published a recipe for Lafayette Gingerbread, which is like a ginger poundcake,” [Mark] Zanger wrote in an e-mail. “Miss Leslie was living at West Point when (the Marquis de) Lafayette (French hero of the American Revolution) made his triumphant return tour to the U.S. in the 1820s, and this is probably something she or someone she knew made to celebrate.”

Later, the story developed that Lafayette had been served gingerbread decades earlier, by George Washington’s mother in Fredericksburg, Va., on a 1784 visit, Zanger said.

The second part of this quote certainly corresponds with what I’ve been able to find on the background of the recipe – the earliest references I can find are to the DAR (especially the Fredericksburg/Washington-Lewis chapter) around the second quarter of the 20th century.

Home bakers could make their own with a box of Dromedary Gingerbread Mix:

How would you like to treat your family to the same hot, spicy gingerbread George Washington ate when a boy? You can and you can be sure it will come out right. For Dromedary Gingerbread Mix is made from the 200 year old recipe of George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, and brings you its ingredients properly proportioned, each of the highest quality and ready mixed. Just add water and pop your gingerbread into the oven.
This fine old recipe is used by special permission of the copyright owners, the Washington-Lewis Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Eliza Leslie’s recipe for Lafayette Gingerbread can be found in her Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, first published in 1828.