Ask any couple, the wedding cake is one element of the wedding of ultimate self-expression. Princess Diana’s cake, for example, was five feet tall, covered with the Windsor coat of arms, and had a stunt double – just in case of an accident. Modern wedding cakes range from designs with subtle nods to the bride’s attire or a totally daring personalized showcase of something they love like cycling or sports. Although the latter is usually reserved for the groom’s cake. The history of how wedding cakes came to be is interesting – and mainly rooted in Great Britain surprisingly enough.
In ancient Rome, marriages were sealed when the groom smashed a barley cake over the bride’s head. In medieval England, newlyweds kissed over a pile of buns. The cakes were made of things less than flavorful like sweetbreads, oysters and plenty of spices. Bride’s Pye as it was known, was similar to today’s modern pie in look, but far different in taste. The baked goods served at Roman and medieval weddings had no resemblance to the sweet confection that we not associate with weddings. However, by the mid sixteenth century, sugar made its way to England, becoming plentiful in European countries and creating that change.
This is how white iced wedding cakes came to be. Sugar had been imported to England since the Middle Ages, but by the 1540’s it was more readily available and affordable. Sugar refineries began springing up through England and Europe. By 1650 there were at least fifty refineries in London alone. The more refined the sugar, the whiter it was. The more refined it was, the more expensive it was. Pure white icing became a status symbol, or display of a family’s wealth. Over time, tiered cakes with decorative supports began to show affluence and the decoration of the cake became just as important as the white icing everyone desired.
During Victorian times new cake traditions came into fashion. One of which involved placing silver charms into the cake. Each charm was tied to a ribbon and would be baked into the cake or laid in between layers for a bridesmaid to pull out at the reception. The charms had special meaning and whichever symbol a person pulled represented what their future would bring. The tradition of Victorian wedding charms is still enjoyed today, particularly in southern portions of the United States.
It wasn’t until the 1840’s that what we know as ‘wedding cake’ was popularly known as such. British wedding cakes remained virtually unchanged from their elaborate Victorian creations until the 1980’s. The once intricately piped royal icing began to be replaced with soft icing, draped and frilled, and often embellished with sugar-paste flowers. At the same time simpler, Americans began craving more than white cake or chocolate and carrot cake with cream cheese filling or key lime coconut cake with lime curd, came into vogue as the flavors at the time.
By the 20th century, both in the United States and England, the tiered wedding cake became standard. One of the biggest challenges in building this large and trending cakes was supporting the weight of each tier so it didn’t collapse onto the layer below. The 1947 cake of Queen Elizabeth in her marriage to Prince Philip was 500 pounds! The heavy tiers caused many couples to begin using royal icing instead of marzipan. Royal icing is a particular type of frosting that dried to a hard surface (often used for making gingerbread houses) and was able to support the tiers without issue.
Another approach was to use columns to hold up each layer of the wedding cake. It was an innovation that lasted for decades, peaking in the 1980’s. Cakes with columns are still available in bakeries today, although they are not very popular. The hardness of royal icing is one of the reasons why we often seen couples cutting the cake together. It used to take the strength of two to make a clean cut. At one point in history, the bride would cut the cake on her own. Yet, as the cakes grew larger and the frosting grew harder, cutting into the cake was pretty challenging.
Another aspect of the wedding cake that evolved over time was the cake topper. The traditional couples cake topper was first seen in the late 19th century and was a very well-known and popular addition to wedding cakes by the 1920’s. Prior to the 20’s, these figures were made of materials like plaster and gum paste by the couple or a loved one. By the 1920’s commercially made cake toppers were becoming widely available as the wedding market became an industry of its own. The cake topper at the time, much like today, is meant to be a special keepsake from the wedding day. However, many modern couples skip the traditional figurines and strive for more Pinterest-worthy cake décor options such as fresh floral, typographic wood cutouts, or nothing at all. It surprised us to learn that fresh floral was considered a non-traditional cake topper in the 1950’s.
Through the 1980’s wedding cakes were relatively unchanged. The white iced tiered cake, possibly with columns, decorated with a couple’s figurine on top was standard. The wedding cake was already a well-talked about focal point of many wedding receptions, but without a doubt it has become one of the most central parts of the reception. Unlike cakes of the past where couples strived for the tallest, heaviest, and most ornate creation, today’s couples use their wedding cake to express their personalities or match the theme of their wedding in a way that was unimagined in the past.
Today, there are practically no rules about wedding cakes. Contemporary cakes can be any color, flavor, or shape, and the possibilities are endless: a dense, dark chocolate cake with a sumptuous filling; gold, silver, and white iced cakes stacked and decorated to look like a pile of wedding presents; a tower of individual desserts; or a plain, moist sponge cake simply iced and decorated with fresh or sugar flowers. Wedding cakes, like the bride’s dress, are subject to the vagaries of fashion, and celebrity weddings and cake designers continually strive to set new trends.