We went to visit some very dear family friends last weekend, and as we cut into the cake we had brought with us (a Victoria Sandwich, what a shock, which I didn’t get round to photographing), we started to talk about sweet treats generally. The lady of the house brought out her own cake bible, which was a prize she had won at school, and as I perused and marvelled she generously insisted that I borrow it.
It’s Good Housekeeping’s Picture Cake Making, published in 1952. Good Housekeeping is, of course, the organisation which publishes the magazine of the same name in both Britain and the States, but it also has (and has long had) its own Institute which tests domestic products, runs classes, sell equipment and ingredients – and publishes ‘how-to’ books like these (you may remember that I quoted from a 1926 article on baking cakes in my first post). This particular book was published at a time of real transition and change: rationing was finally coming to an end in Britain, and the slew of new products made from plastics and dyes developed for the war meant that life was becoming newly colourful and exciting. This was probably the first time in over a decade that a cookbook could matter-of-factly include hundreds of recipes which called for significant quantities of butter, eggs and sugar, and its colour plates give a technicolour glimpse into the kitchens of the early 1950s.
I’m struck by a few things as I flick through the pages of the book. The first is its timelessness: lots of the cakes are still perennial favourites – the Victoria Sandwich, of course, the Dundee Cake, and the Rock Cake for example – but others surprised me by already evidently being family favourites in the 1950s – Swiss Rolls, Chocolate Crackle Cakes (the ubiquitous childhood favourites of cornflakes and melted chocolate) – and even Angel Cake, which I had only heard of in the last few years but which had evidently already made its journey across the Atlantic from America. Requiring 9 egg whites, this recipe would have been unthinkable during the rationing period.
The second is the complete opposite: how much tastes have changed, not only in the lurid colours, which are proudly displayed on the colour pages, but also the (to our eyes) fussy decoration and quite bizarre novelty cakes (see below for my favourite, and The Scientist’s nemesis – the mushroom cake!).
Third, is how cake then, as now, is portrayed as being absolutely bound up with family life (there is a chapter devoted to ‘Cakes for the Children’) – but then much more than now, how openly that was tied to female home-making. The marriage bar was definitely still in existence in the 1950s, and it would have been unusual for women to continue to work when they had young children. Even as more women moved into the workplace, society continued to promote and praise an image of femininity which was tied to the middle-class home. The Foreword makes this very clear:
Cake-making has an irresistible appeal to most women…Many housewives save up the necessary ingredients in order to give their families the benefit of good home-made cakes and to provide at moderate cost rich and exciting-looking cakes for special tea-parties and other celebrations… (p. 6)
Actually I think that sentiment is not entirely out of place for many women today – the differences being that firstly, generally, they have a choice to do these things or not; secondly, they are usually performing these domestic roles alongside paid work; and thirdly – no one would dream of tying that to female roles so overtly today.