The Gingerbread Man

Eighteenth century gingerbread cakes, although the name is a bit deceiving, are very similar to the gingerbread cookies so many of us will indulge in this holiday season. The chief differences between the modern & historic versions include the use of treacle, baking soda and the final shaping of the cookie. However, the differences are so slight that they should not deter the amateur historian from attempting these tempting treats.

Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language from 1768 defines gingerbread as a “farinaceous fweetmeat made of dough, like that of bread or bifcuit.” His colleague, Francis Grosse defines it in the 1788 publishing of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as, “A cake made of treacle, flour, and grated ginger”. From these definitions it is clear that gingerbread cakes are actually a cookie with a floury texture, sweetened with the foam created during the processing of sugar, highly spiced with ginger. Molasses, although also part of the sugar refining process and frequently used in modern gingerbread, is not the same as treacle. It is interesting to note that not every recipe surveyed uses treacle; the trend later in the decade leans toward sugar, specifically brown sugar, and molasses so that by the 1814 publishing of Maria Rundell’s A New System of Domestic Cookery not one of the four different recipes for gingerbread include treacle as an ingredient.

Modern bakers rely on baking soda and other chemical leaveners to create lighter textured in their baked goods. In the 18th century, some 50 years before the first commercially packaged baking soda, the main choice of chemical leavener would have been potassium carbonate, commonly known as pearl-ash. None of the surveyed recipes include this leavener, suggesting that period gingerbread was a rather dense, unleavened cake. Period cooks further encouraged the density of the cakes by circumventing the meager expanding power of the included butter. Elizabeth Cleland’s recipe from A New and Easy Method of Cookery suggests that cooks “prick them with a Fork” before baking. Such docking prevents the baked goods from rising by providing release points for the build up of internal steam. The resulting density of the cakes alone does not though suggest that they were ideal for long term storage since many recipes still included butter which can compromise the storage potential of goods, even after baking.

To the modern mind, gingerbread conjures up thoughts of elaborate cookie houses, decorated with sugared icing and tiny candies, inhabited by little gingerbread men. The 18th century gingerbread man bore little resemblance to his modern counterpart. Instead of a cut-out, he would have more likely been pressed or printed, the stiff dough rolled & pressed against a carved wooden mold to produce a relief image. Thanks to the lack of leavener, the resulting image would stay crisp and clear even after baking. A more common period option for shaping the cookies is to take John Farley’s advice and “make them up into thin cakes”. These cakes were most likely round in shape, cut out “with a tea-cup, or fmall glafs” or rolled “round like nuts” as both John Farley & Hannah Glasse suggest in their respective books. In her extensive collection of gingerbread recipes Maria Rundell adds, “Of some, drops may be made”. There is even a recipe specifically for so called gingerbread nuts in the 1807 version of The Complete Confectioner. The trend of calling them gingerbread nuts rather than cakes not only references their shape, but further suggests just how dense the resulting cookies were.

"I'm a gingerbread merchant, but what of that there,
All the world, take my word, deal in gingerbread ware."

Since historic and modern gingerbreads are so similar in both ingredients and cooking method, it is easy to substitute a favorite modern recipe and enjoy these treats at all your period holiday gatherings. However, for those of an adventurous nature, it is just as easy to directly follow a historic recipe; in fact gingerbread might be one of the best first historic recipes simply because it is so similar. Plus, if they turn out poorly, you can always package them up & give them as a gift to another reenactor friend who might not enjoy the taste, but will certainly appreciate the attempt.


Works Cited:
Cleland, Elizabeth. 1755. A New and Easy Method of Cookery: Treating, I. Of gravies, Soups, Broths, &c. II. Of Fish, and Their Sauces. III. To Pot and Make Hams, &c. IV. Of Pies, Pasties, &c. V. Of Pickling and Preserving. VI. Of Made Wines, Distilling and Brewing, &c. W. Gordon.

Farley, John. 1787. The London Art of Cookery, and Housekeeper's Complete Assistant.

Glasse, Hannah. 1774. The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy: Which Far Exceeds Any thing of the Kind Yet Published. W. Strahan, J. and F. Rivington, J. Hinton.

Grose, Francis. 1788. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. S. Hooper
"Hot Ginger-bread, Smoking Hot". John Johnson Collection. Bodleian Library. University of Oxford.

Johnson, Samuel. 1768. A Dictionary of the English Language. W. G. Jones.

Nutt, Frederick. 1807. The Complete Confectioner: or, The Whole Art of Confectionary Made Easy: Containing, Among a Variety of Useful Matter, the Art of Making the Various Kinds of Biscuits, Drops &c. as Also The Most Approved Method of Making Cheeses, Puddings, Cakes &c. in 250 Cheap and Fashionable Receipts. Richard Scott.

Rundell, Maria Eliza Ketelby. 1814. A New System of Domestic Cookery: Formed Upon Principles of Economy: and Adapted to the Use of Private Families Throughout the United States. R. M'Dermut & D. D. Arden

Wilson, Charles Henry. 1803. The Myrtle and Vine: or, Complete Vocal Library, Containing Several Thousands of Plaintive, Sentimental, Humorous & Bacchanalian Songs, Collected From the Muses of England, Ireland & Scotland. T. Dean.


  1. I ran across your blog looking for information on pearl ash in baking. By coincidence I'd started from a recipe for gingerbread that does use pearl ash as a leavener: the molasses gingerbread in Amelia Simmons' 1798 American Cookery. It's a kneaded bread (which does not actually include ginger); the "soft gingerbread" is leavened with eggs and looks more like pound cake in consistency.

    While I'm here I'll ask: Do you have a sense of what the leavening power of pearl ash was, in comparison to modern single- or double-acting baking powder?

  2. Passing on this comment from a historic foodie friend Boulanger

    "Nice post Chole, I missed this one in the winter madness. That image is awesome!

    The Simmons recipe does use pearl ash for gingerbread as David says. I have a recipe for that here:

    I don't know if David will see this response, but to answer his question see a comparison of leavings I did:

    IMHO- baking soda/baking powder is NOT like pearl ash at all."

    His experiment on leaving power is amazing!


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