The History of the Wedding Cake

Today the wedding cake is traditionally the centerpiece of the wedding reception, not only is it displayed in a prominent place at the venue but there is usually a special ceremony in which the bridal couple cut the cake.  The style and size of a wedding cake can vary from the simple single layer cake to elaborately decorated multi-tiered cakes.  The choice of cake, filling and frosting can also vary with a wide selection of flavors and the bride and groom will often schedule a special appointment with a bakery or with a particular pastry chef to sample or taste test the different combinations.

The tradition of a wedding cake can be traced back to the time of the Ancient Romans when during the wedding festivities the groom would eat a small portion of a loaf of bread and then break the bread over the bride’s head to symbolize the man’s power over the women, another interpretation was that it would ensure fertility and health to their future children.  The guests attending the wedding would gather and eat the bread crumbs maybe hoping to obtain some luck.

In Medieval England the tradition became a type of game or obstacle when loaves of bread were stacked on a table as high as possible for the bride and groom to kiss over.  If the couple were able successfully kiss over the stack it was thought that it would assure a prosperous life together.  Another very odd custom during the medieval times was that guest would throw bread at the bride as another symbol of fertility.

There is an interesting story which originated in the 15th century about a Frenchman, who also happened to be a pastry chef. He had visited England and saw the unusual custom of the bridal couple trying to kiss over the stacks of bread or other pastries.  When he returned to France he created a more elegant version of the pastry stack and it became known as a croquembouche.   He piled profiterole (a pastry ball filled with cream or custard) piled into a cone shape which were held together with spun sugar.  The croquembouche became the French version of the wedding cake and in later years it could be decorated with sugared almonds or drizzled with chocolate.  Today, the croquembouche remains a popular desert still served at wedding or special occasions in European countries.

Shown in the photo above is a modern day croquembouche

In the 17th century, fruit cakes officially replaced the bread served at weddings; these became known as the bride’s pie or cake.  On a historical note, the first commercially produced fruit cake especially made for weddings was the popular Banbury cake.  A Banbury cake is an oval flat pastry with a spiced currant filling which were originally made by Edward Weichman in 1586 and sold in a small shop in Banbury (hence the name!)  These cakes were usually ordered by local English brides but in later years the cakes would be sent to other countries as far away as America, Australia and India.  (Special Note: Today, the Banbury cakes are still available for purchase from several different bakeries and are often ordered by customers for their tea time!)


Eventually two cakes would be customarily served at a wedding reception, of course the first was the bride’s cake and the other became known as the groom’s cake.  The groom’s cake was usually a smaller, dark and rich fruit cake.  By the mid-19th century white frosting made with refined white sugar was used for wedding cakes but only the wealthiest upper class could afford the very expensive ingredient.  When young Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in the 1840, royal baker created a large single layer wedding cake with white icing which measured about three yards in circumference, fourteen inches in height and weighed approximately 300 pounds.  The elaborate cake top was almost a foot in height and featured a Britannia figurine, two more figurines representing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  A cupid figurine writing the date of their marriage was also used to decorate the cake top and there are also several additional cupids bearing the emblems of the United Kingdom.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s wedding cake

(For more information on the British Royal Wedding Cakes, please click on the link)

At the Great Exhibition of Crystal Palace Exhibition which took place in London in 1851 a grand three tiered cake was debuted, the first tier was made of cake while the other two tiers were made entirely of sugar.  This multi-tiered cake became popular for wedding cakes, dowels were used to separate the layers and the decorations became even more elaborate.  The wedding cake had now evolved into a grand multi-tiered elaborately decorated centerpiece of the wedding reception.  The innovation of pillars made of wooden dowels inserted into the cake for internal support enabled the height of wedding cakes to soar to the ceiling.  Because of the additional labor and expense that a multi-tiered wedding cake required, it was thought that the height of the wedding cake was an indication of the wealth of the family!

Interior plastic pillars shown used in a modern wedding cake

Multi-tiered wedding cakes have become the standard throughout the world but most often for weddings in England and in the United States.  The difference between the two countries is that in England the traditional wedding cake is a fruitcake sometimes made with raisins, dates or orange peel and soaked in cognac and then frosted with Royal icing, marzipan or fondant.  Because the density of the cake allowed for longer storage, it was at this time that the tradition of saving the top tier of the wedding cake to be served later for the couple’s first year anniversary or the celebration of their first child’s christening.  Now many modern cakes consist of flavors such as vanilla sponge, chocolate sponge or carrot cake.  (Special Note:  British Royal wedding cakes were among the most elaborate cakes made in the world.  This still holds true today in the 21st century and when Prince William married Catherine Middleton in 2011 their wedding cake had eight-tiers, as shown in the photo below)

In the United States, the traditional wedding cake is generally made with flour and eggs with additional ingredients added for flavor, such as vanilla or chocolate, and then a variety of fillings, such as custard, are used between the layers.  The entire cake is then frosted with icing made from buttercream or covered with fondant and then artfully decorated with icing piped on in various patterns, gum paste roses or possibly marzipan figurines.

An elaborate Sylvia Weinstock wedding cake with frosting and gumpaste flowers

In the past, wedding cakes throughout the years have been decorated with fresh flowers, sometimes scattered on the different layers, at the base or at the top in a vase to hold the flowers.  Wedding cake toppers before the 20th century were generally made by a pastry chef or wedding cake baker and handcrafted from frosting, gum paste, marzipan or occasionally non-edible materials, such as plaster of Paris.  These cake toppers reflected the matrimonial theme and were sometimes wedding bells, cupids or lovebird figurines.  (For ideas and suggestions for Wedding Cake Toppers, please click on the link)

1920s wedding cake topper (photo from Pinterest)

After World War I, decorative cake toppers became very popular and were all the rage with the upper class society in America, England and France.  At this time, more elaborate cake toppers were made commercially for the first time with mass produced materials such as glass or porcelain.  Eventually companies like the Sears & Roebuck department store in the mid-1920s made cake toppers available to the middle class through their mail order catalog and featured bride and groom figurines in less expensive materials such as chalkware and wax.  Bridal couple figurines were displayed side by side wearing a variety of fashion options, such as top hats for the groom that reflected the time period.  Then, just before and during World War, the bridal couple figurines featured the groom wearing military uniforms and sometimes carrying patriotic flags.  This category of cake topper is fairly unusual to find in antique stores or online which make these figurines one of the most sought after type to purchase or collect.  Eventually, during the late 1940s and into the 1950s, cake toppers became available in materials such as Bakelite and plastic.


Vintage 1940 (L) and 1950 (R)wedding cake toppers (photos from Pinterest)

Today, an unlimited variety of cake toppers are currently able for purchase.  Depending on the theme, style or the interests and hobbies of the bridal couple there is a cake topper to fit.  (For more information regarding the Cake Topper Custom, please click on the link for ideas and suggestions for selecting a cake topper as well as tips for purchasing vintage ones)

Traditions, customs and superstitions regarding wedding cakes

  • The cutting of the cake originally started as a custom performed by the bride who would then distribute the slices to the guests (perhaps a sign of her new household duties as a married woman). Then in the mid-19th century, as royal icing was used to cover the traditional dense fruitcake, it would harden to the point that two people (the bride and the groom) would be required to cut through it.
  • It was thought that sometime in the late 19th century the custom of the bride and the groom sharing the first bite of the freshly cut wedding cake was started. This proved to be a grand gesture symbolic of the bridal couple sharing their first meal together.

A Victorian era bride and groom cutting their wedding cake

  • Since a traditional fruitcake was so dense in consistency it allowed for longer storage and this was possibly why the tradition was started in the late 19th century of preserving the top tier of the wedding cake. After the wedding, the top would to saved with the intention to be served for the couple’s first year anniversary or hopefully for the celebration of their first child’s christening.
  • Superstitiously in the past many bridesmaids cut a small piece of wedding cake, pass it through a bride’s wedding ring for luck and then it would be wrapped and placed under their pillow in the hopes that they would “dream about their future husband”.  Later this custom evolved into slices of wedding cake specially packaged individually for guests to take home after the wedding to eat later or maybe perhaps to be tucked under their pillows!  Shown in the photo below is a slice from the wedding cake of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

  • Dating back to Victorian England a custom of placing silver charms into the wedding cake was started, the origin could be traced back to an early century when a token would be hidden inside a “bride’s pie”. The charms were tied to a silk ribbon and placed inside the cake and then pulled out by the bridesmaids at the wedding reception.  Different charms would have special meanings and represented what the bridesmaid’s future would bring.  A wedding ring charm indicated a future marriage, the anchor stood for adventure, the coin for prosperity, the four leaf clover or horseshoe for luck, and the thimble for spinsterhood. This charming tradition of wedding cake charms is still a custom in the Southern United States.

For two interesting posts regarding Wedding Cake Display Ideas – Part One and Part Two, please click on the links