Wedding cake history dates back at least to the Romans, as a symbol and a tradition at most weddings. They have evolved over many centuries, and here we continue with it's history from the period commencing with the Victorians, through to modern day weddings (including reference to Royal wedding cakes and war time wedding cakes).
From the earliest historic records the wedding cake has been steeped in tradition. The Victorians 'upped the image' and the significance, and we still see those effects today. We have included the war-time years and some significant royal weddings in our account.
By the mid 19th century the cakes, known as 'Brides Cakes', had been adopted for all weddings and the Brides Pie had effectively ceased to exist. The Brides Pie and Brides Cake were so named to retain the emphasis on the bride at the wedding.
The second half of the 19th century saw weddings reaching the heights of decadence, with grand lavish receptions being thrown for vast numbers of guests. Status mattered greatly in Victorian times, and huge weddings with grand receptions and impressive cakes were a reflection on the bride's parent's wealth and status. Even the less wealthy of Victorian society held the most lavish receptions possible and catered a cake of the best possible standards.
Throughout the 1800s ingredients had improved and became more readily available due to our strong trading links with Commonwealth countries and the rest of the world, shipping had improved and the merchant fleet increased. Wedding cakes, as well as many other foodstuffs, had benefited from this. By the beginning of the 20th century sugars and fruits were more readily available and cakes began to take the form of the rich texture that a traditional wedding cake still holds today. Cakes that were made from a combination of fruits, fats and flour became popular because of their storage life in the days before refrigeration. An icing over the cake, made from lard and sweetening, effectively 'sealed' the moisture content into the cake and prevented it from becoming stale before it's use at the wedding.
The traditional colour of wedding cakes has been white since the late 19th century. This has been generally thought of as a wedding theme, reflective of the bride's dress and a symbol of purity. This white symbolism has given foundation to the myth of white being used as a reflection of purity with the white icing on the cake and the bride's white wedding dress - it's a comfortable tradition and it's a nice reflection of what we hold weddings to be - but it's not strictly true!
Throughout Victorian times, only the very affluent families could afford the finely refined sugars needed to create a pure white icing for the wedding cake. As a result of this, many wedding cakes were finished with an icing that varied in colour between light brown, through various shades of cream to white (indicating the quality of sugar used in the icing mix). Colourings to create special colours and effects for icing were almost non-existent in Victorian times. White icing on wedding cakes was reflective of the wealth of the family organising the wedding rather than a symbol of the bride's purity or the theme for a traditional wedding. In the early Victorian days, the name of the cake evolved from the Bride's Cake to become the Wedding Cake, again reflective of Victorian society and values.
On her marriage to Prince Albert in 1840, Queen Victoria's own wedding cake was a sight to behold. The cakehad a circumference of nine feet (2.75 meters) and weighed over 300 pounds (136 kilos). The cake is reported to have been about 14" high (35.6 cm), of a two-tier design with the second tier rising from the centre of the base. A pure white icing background was decorated with cupids and on the top a sculpture of the mythical Britannia and the marrying couple.
Probably one of the most ostentatious wedding cakes of the Victorian era was that of Queen Victoria's daughter Princess Louise, on her marriage to the Marquis of Lorne in 1871. The Royal Family of the time were opposed to the marriage, but Queen Victoria approved and the couple were married in lavish style. The wedding cake stood 5 feet (1.52mts) tall from it's base to the top tier and weighed over 225 pounds (102.3 kilos) and, of course, it was finished in fine white icing.
The first genuinely public Royal marriage ceremony was that of Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II) to the Duke of Edinburgh. This was the first televised Royal wedding and the first ever occasion that television cameras had been allowed to film from inside Westminster Abbey. Following the marriage and the day's events guests were invited to an opulent supper. The Royal couple had a total of nine wedding cakes at their reception, with the official cake standing 9 feet (2.74mts) tall and weighing in at a staggering 500 pounds (227 kgs). Their official cake had four tiers, three of them replicating in sugar Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Balmoral Castle.
Shortage of ingredients and rationing forced most British newlyweds to think creatively about their wedding cakes throughout the war years and for some time afterwards (into the early 1950s). In order to have a lavish and beautiful cake at the wedding reception the limited ingredients had to be used with some imagination. Due to rationing, the size of the actual cake was greatly reduced, and often there wouldn't be enough sugar available to create an icing at all. To overcome the somewhat poor appearance of the wedding cake, many caterers would create a box to fit over the top of the cake and coat it with plaster of Paris. The plaster of Paris finish would resemble icing and would create the impression of a much larger and more lavishly decorated wedding cake. Additional tiers could also be added to this plaster cast production, made from decorated empty boxes.
The tiered wedding cake design began as a reflection of great wealth and was once the reserve of British royalty and nobility. The multi-tiered cake would grace a grand wedding reception and be the centerpiece of the catering. The wedding cake would serve a number of functions, with at least one layer being reserved for christenings (the older tradition being that a christening would follow the wedding date within a year or so).
As the tiered wedding cake has been more widely adopted over recent years, the tiers became rationalised to a standard of three. The base layer used for the guests at the reception, the centre layer used for distribution amongst family, guests and those friends and relatives who were absent from the reception, and the top layer reserved as a christening cake. In modern times, a christening is no longer closely associated with the wedding and so the couple will often reserve the top tier of their cake for their first anniversary celebration, which creates a lovely reminder of their wedding day.
Many weddings and wedding cakes no longer follow a traditional style. In the 21st century weddings are no longer held in venues restricted to churches and register offices, and wedding cakes are no longer restricted to any style, shape, colour or traditional values. Many wedding cakes are now a sculptured creation, formed into an infinite number of shapes, sizes and designs by skilled, specialist cake designers. Other than the practicality of it still being an edible cake (which can be difficult to believe with some creations), the wedding cake can take almost any form, size and colours to the couple's wedding theme or personal choice. Content is no longer restricted to the traditional fruitcake recipe of older times and there are now dozens of fillings for the bride and groom to choose from for their cakes.
A relatively new concept for UK weddings is the Groom's Cake. This has been a tradition in some southern states of America for many generations, where the bride would often have a surprise cake prepared for her groom. The reasoning behind a grooms cake is not recorded; some stories say that it is to be served by the groom to the bridesmaids, others that it is to be saved until after the wedding and honeymoon and then shared with friends. The concept of a grooms cake has only recently started to appear at some UK weddings.
The grooms cake is normally a contrast to the wedding cake. Where the wedding cake is white or lightly coloured, the grooms cake would be a contrasting colour, flavour and texture. It is ideal for providing an alternative texture and flavour from the wedding cake. It is a single cake without tiers and is often designed in a way that reflects the groom's interests (in the shape of a cricket bat, football, motorbike, etc.). It should be positioned next to the wedding cake at the reception, but make sure that the grooms cake doesn't overshadow it.
The grooms cake is not a wedding essential, nor a wedding tradition and is only popular with some couples. If you feel that it is an unnecessary expense at your wedding, then simply don't have one!
Information on wedding cakes from the earliest records in Roman times, over the centuries to modern day. Steeped in history and tradition, it's good to know why we have a wedding cake and it's significance today and over past years.