A history of baking in 6 objects

From delicate confectionary moulds to life-saving ‘patty pans’, the baking implements of the past can tell us plenty about Britain’s innovative culinary history.

As the Great British Bake Off returns to our TV screens, Emma Kay, author of new book Vintage Kitchenalia, shares the history behind the remarkable objects that have been used to bake the delicious (and not so delicious) treats of the past…

Bread tins

Though once considered the food of the poor, by the end of the 18th century, brown bread and course-grained flour were popular alternatives for the wealthier classes who began to reject the mass-produced, super-fine flours imported from the United States. Britain has retained its demands for less-conventional flours into the 21st century, with recent revivals for artisan grains such as spelt, rye, buck-wheat and gluten-free alternatives including rice, potato and oat flours. The latter sustained day-to-day bread making in Scotland and Ireland for centuries. 

The phrase ‘bread tin’ or ‘loaf tin’ was not commonly used until the early 1800s, roughly around the same time as the origination of the tin can for the preservation of food.

Prior to the standard bread tin we are all familiar with today, loaves shaped in crude rustic ball shapes, or ‘boules’, were baked on a wooden tool called a 'peel' in large earthenware crocks. As bakers began to understand the science of bread-making – understanding that too much heat from below would burn the goods and that coarser flours required longer cooking times – bread ovens slowly became more progressive and integrated into the standard oven range in the 19th century. 

This progression was also seen in 19th-century legislation pioneered by the great German chemist, Friedrich Accum, that would subjugate the appalling and widespread use of harmful additives in baked goods.


A 19th-century satirical image showing a bread trough, oven and peel.

Biscuit tins

Biscuits evolved out of small, baked necessities used as substance for long journeys. The most famous of these are perhaps the ‘ship’s biscuits’ eaten by Tudor sailors. These were concocted from flour, salt and water, prebaked on land and then rehydrated in stews or beer while at sea. Often alive with weevils and hard as door posts, this culinary ‘delight’ was almost certainly the precursor for the staple biscuit that we are all familiar with today. 

Gingerbread was traditionally the biscuit of popular choice, reigning supreme from its roots in the 13th century, right up until the 19th century. There were whole fairs and fetes dedicated to this sweet treat. The most popular of these, the Birmingham Fair, took place each year until the mid-1800s while other major fairs known for their significant gingerbread and toy stalls, Oxford St Giles and St Bartholomew Fairs in London, also petered out by the middle of the century. These would have consisted of rows and rows of market stalls displaying gingerbread in all its forms, interspersed with booths selling toys. Gingerbread men were known as ‘husbands’ in England.


Late 19-century tin biscuit cutter. (© Emma Kay)

Early tin biscuit cutters like the one pictured above would often have little holes drilled into them to help circulate air, as well as aiding the release of the biscuit following cooking. In the 19th century, small biscuit cutters shaped like leaves, flowers, birds and animals were popular, used to produce fine, fancy almond pastes or other luxury delicacies. 

The ‘docker’ was once an essential tool for the baking of biscuits. It looked like an instrument of torture – sharp spikes attached to a wooden handle. This would perforate the biscuit dough to prevent trapped air from making the mix bubble up or rise too much.

By the early 20th century, it became hugely popular to ice biscuits using the new-fangled metal syringes, which could be purchased in the icing kits manufactured by Tala and Nutbrown.


A Tala icing set c1950-60 and 1940s flour sifter. (© Emma Kay)

Cake tins

The term ‘cake tin’ did not emerge until tin manufacturing had become the popular choice for kitchenware during the mid-19th century. Prior to this, ‘patty pans’ made from steel were used to bake small cakes and tartlets in a variety of shapes and sizes.

During the Second World War, cake tins became equally popular for storing money as well as spongey delights. The media at this time reported on the high number of burglaries that prompted housewives to hide their loot in this most convenient of saving banks. 

In 1921, the Dundee Evening Telegraph reported that the favoured receptacle also saved the life of a little German girl, who was travelling alone by train in the UK. Having panicked after just missing her stop, the child threw open the outer carriage door as the train departed, shielding herself from the fall by holding out her cake tin. Despite falling out while travelling at a speed up to 20 miles an hour, she survived, albeit with some serious injuries.


Gingerbread hornbooks, based on the wooden and leather educational hornbooks, were blocks of alphabetical letters or Roman numerals designed as learning tools for children. (© Emma Kay)

Pie-making

Pies are as ancient as the Egyptians and Greeks. The earliest of these wondrous and versatile of baked goods consisted of meat wrapped in flour and water pastes to seal in the juices when cooking, or honey concoctions which were coated in mixed grains and baked over hot coals. In early British pie-making, wooden hoops were used to shape the pie mould itself, though by the Victorian period, any dish that was deep enough to contain meat, vegetables, a gravy, capable of being covered by a pastry crust was termed a pie. 

This was also the era of the decorative pie collar and functional pie funnel, designed to both release steam and support the pie crust. In an 1806 edition of The Experienced English Housekeeper, the early 19th-century cook Elizabeth Raffald recommended that raised pies should be cooked in a well-sealed oven, quickly to prevent the sides from falling down. “Light pasted pies” were considered most successful if cooked at moderate temperatures for a period of time that was neither “too long, nor too short” (resulting in the pastry becoming either “sad” or quick to burn).

 

Rolling pins and pastry jiggers

Two of the earliest mass-produced baking tools are the rolling pin and pastry jigger (jagger), with a history of mass production starting in the 1600s, possibly earlier. 

Glass rolling pins were used in the preparation of pastry-making, and they were often filled with ice to maintain the temperature when rolling. Apart from producing baked goods, decorative rolling pins were often used by sailors as superstitious good luck charms at sea. The Nailsea glass factory near Bristol produced a huge range of beautiful and decorative glass rolling pins (main picture).

The pastry jigger, or cutter, was originally carved from scrimshaw [bone or ivory objects], another pastime of sailors who would create these wonderfully intricate items for their waiting wives and girlfriends ashore. 

The popular French rolling pins of the Victorian era were thicker in the middle and tapered at the ends in order to enhance the rolling process. In 1866, two Americans, Theodore Williamson and Chas Richardson, applied for a patent to create the ultimate rolling pin: one that acted not only as a roller, grater, and steak tenderiser, but also as a butter print. Whether it was commercially successful or not remains a mystery.

 

Moulds

Moulds are the backbone to any kitchen and used to create many historical treats, from ancient Chinese rice cake sculptures to traditional jellies, ices and delicate confectionery.

One of the most famous historical moulds in the UK is that of the Biddenden twins, Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst. This stems from a Kentish legend of twin girls, born joined at the hip and shoulders. Each Easter, the town of Biddenden would distribute cakes shaped in the image of the twins, taken from moulds carved in their image.

Other notable moulds include the traditional gingerbread hornbooks, based on the wooden and leather educational hornbooks, which were popular between the 16th and 19th centuries. These were blocks of alphabetical letters or Roman numerals designed as learning tools for children. The edible versions were incredibly popular in the 18th century, with London street sellers touting them for around half a penny.

Gelatine is the stuff of early civilisations and blancmange is not, as we might believe, a 1960s British brainchild. Rather, it is thought to have originated in the Middle East from almonds, chicken, rice and sugar and introduced to Britain by the crusaders. It is also understood that a Frenchman in the 1600s widely communicated the method of boiling animal bones to extract its benefits, with the use of fishbones and innards to produce an adhesive (Isinglass), patented by the British in 1750.


A 20th-century wax Springerle mould. (© Emma Kay)

Springerles are German biscuit, cake or confection moulds that exist in many designs and forms, originally carved from wood and wax. This is a typical traditional recipe taken from German National Cookery for English Kitchens, 1873:

Half a pound of fine flour, half a pound of sifted sugar, two eggs, an ounce of butter, and a pinch of carbonate of soda dissolved in a teaspoonful of milk, or a little more if necessary. Form with these a dough, which must be well kneaded. Roll it out a quarter of an inch thick. Mix the anise-seeds into the dough… The more general way of moulding the springerle is with various figures cut in wooden blocks. These are dusted with flour, the paste rolled out and cut into small pieces, which are then pressed into the shapes, the surface shaved off with a knife, and the devices turned out by knocking the blocks as they are held upside down. Bake them very pale.

Emma Kay is the author of Vintage Kitchenalia (Amberley Books, 2017)

If you want to try your hand at baking more historical delicacies, including a Marlborough pie and Tiger Nut Balls, click here to see our pick of historical recipes.

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