The 18th century cookie cutter

I’ve found some lovely cookie cutters while I’ve been researching for Gingerbread Bride.

Flat hard wafers seem to have first been made in 7th century Persia, and spread into Europe through the Muslim conquest of Spain. And gingerbread was a great favourite in England from medieval times.

Wooden moulds to shape the dough gave way to metal cutters in or around the 16th century. They were made on the spot to the buyer’s specification, every one different.


Historically cookie cutters were made by family members and itinerant tinsmiths who travelled the country.  Often the tinsmith would spend several days making cake tins, pans and pails. The cookie cutters for the most part were made from left-over tin scraps. Some interesting examples have turned up showing they were made from flattened baking powder tins and canisters.

As well as the dough and the cutters, I’ve been researching the story. First written down in the 1870s, the gingerbread man is part of a much older classification of folk tales: the runaway food stories. The British tradition seems to have leant towards pancakes and bunnocks, but the gingerbread story, when it first appeared in print, came with the note that a servant girl told it to the writer’s children, and that she had it from an old lady. So I feel quite justified in using the story in my novella for the Bluestocking Belles box set. Here’s the excerpt where my heroine remembers the story.

Mary smiled with satisfaction as she placed the last of the little gingerbread ladies into the box.  In the four weeks she had been at Aunt Dorothy’s, she had learned a number of recipes, and helped with all kinds of baking, but the gingerbread biscuits that the cook of the Ulysses taught her had become her special contribution to the success of the shop.

Making them took her back to the galley where Cookie ruled with a rod of iron over various helpers, but always had time for a lonely little girl. She could still hear his deep gravelly voice telling the story of the run-away gingerbread horse, or it might be a dog, or whatever cutter shape he had used at the time. She would be hovering over the tray of hot biscuits, waiting for them to cool enough to ice and eat.

“And he ran, and he ran,” Cookie would say, “with all the village behind him: the old lady, the fat squire, the pretty milkmaid, and the hungry sailor. But none of them could catch the gingerbread horse.”

The story would continue, with the gingerbread horse escaping one would-be eater after another, and mocking them all, until Cookie had iced the first biscuit, and she would then wait, patient and giggling, for the gingerbread horse to encounter the river, and the fox.

First, he’d put the horse over her back. Then, as the river water rose, on her head. And finally, she would tip her head back, and he would perch the biscuit on her nose, and say the words she had been waiting for. “And bite, crunch, swallow, that was the end of the gingerbread horse.”

Aunt Dorothy had round cutters, and star cutters, and cutters in the shape of various animals. When the miller’s daughter asked for gingerbread ladies and gentlemen for her wedding breakfast, Mary had been delighted with the conceit, and the cutters the tinker made to her pencil drawings worked very well.

The icing gave them clothes and features; a whole box of little gingerbread grooms, and a box of little gingerbread brides. The miller’s daughter would be very pleased.


4 thoughts on “The 18th century cookie cutter

  1. How fascinating! That gentleman cutter is beautiful too! I wonder if ginger was easier to get in the UK in the medieval times and that is why it was so popular? I am a big fan of it myself! LOL Looking forward to the book!!

    • This is probably more information than you ever wanted to know, but here’s what a researcher says: [Nancy Cox and Karin Dannehl, ‘Gilt ginger – Ginseng’, in Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities, 1550-1820 (Wolverhampton, 2007), [accessed 10 April 2015].]

      [gyng’r; gyngere; gynger; gyng’; ginn’; ging’r; genger]

      The rhizome of the tropical plant Zingiber officinale has been so long in cultivation that its place of origin is obscured. It is not known to grow in the wild. Whilst it is now cultivated in most parts of the world with a tropical climate, in the early-modern period all ginger came from the East Indies until the plant was transferred to the West Indies, particularly BARBADOES and JAMAICA. Here the rhizomes are planted in March or April and harvested the following January, or earlier when required as GREEN GINGER rather than as DRIED GINGER [Simmonds (1906)]. If marketed unprocessed it was known as BLACK GINGER, but if the skin was scraped, it was known as WHITE GINGER. Although it is impossible to grow ginger out of doors in England, it will flourish in artificial heat. Instruction for growing ginger in pots in a heated greenhouse were given by Richard Bradley [Recipes (Bradley, R.)].

      Ginger is remarkable for its hot spicy taste, and it was probably the most popular SPICE after PEPPER, perhaps in part because it was also relatively cheap. Although used mainly in cooking, it has medicinal virtues, particularly for treating digestive problems. It was therefore included in the Materia Medica and found its way into most of the classic medicinal formulations like MITHRIDATE and VENICE TREACLE and in the medicinal SYRUP OF GINGER [Pemberton (1746)].

      Most ginger was probably bought in the form of GROUND GINGER, but by the eighteenth century retailers were offering a choice: ‘Whole and ground ginger’ in one shop [Tradecards (18c.)], ‘Ginger in rece or ground’ in another [Tradecards (19c.)]. One Lincoln retailer had ‘beat at 6d the poun’, white at 8d and black at 4d [Inventories (1708)]. Consumers may most commonly have used ground ginger, but not all. For example Timothy Burrell in 1701 made MEAD using ‘a race of ginger, bruised and boiled’ [Diaries (Burrell)], while Thomas Turner added ‘ground pepper or pounded ginger’ to his charitable ‘cheap soup’ [Diaries (Turner)].

      Even a relatively poor yeoman like Richard Latham bought ginger, admittedly in small quantities, in most years between 1724 and 1750 [Latham (1990)], and a list drawn up in the 1670s of what a group of emigrants should take with them to America included both ginger, presumably as ground ginger, and green ginger [Diaries (Josselyn)]. The well-to-do bought on a majestic scale. For example, Elizabeth Purefoy ordered no less than two pounds from a London supplier in December 1746 [Eland (1931)]. After PEPPER it was probably the most commonly used SPICE.

      OED earliest date of use: c1000

      Found described by of the British Plantations, not of the British Plantations, COARSE, of the East Indies, of the West Indies, minced, OLD, ORDINARY
      Found in units of BAG, C, LB, OUNCE, QUARTER, RACE, SCRUPLE Found rated by the BAG, C of 100LB, CWT of 112 LB, HUNDREDWEIGHT, POUND, STONE

      • I like to research so I think that was perfect! So many families had business interests in the West indies, I am sure they had easy access! Especially if your family was in trade. I think I will work in some ginger somewhere in my notes for a story I’m thinking about! Thank you!

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