The History of the Wedding Cake

A bride about to slice a tiered wedding cake

Wedding cake is undeniably one of the best parts of the reception. Not only is it an adorable picture opportunity for the happy couple (will they or won’t they smash the cake in each other’s face?), but also almost everyone likes a good slice of cake.

Like most wedding traditions, it seems like wedding cake has always been an integral part of the wedding ceremony—but also like most wedding traditions, we don’t often stop to think about the history of the wedding cake or why the heck we even have cake at a wedding (why not wedding pie or wedding brownies?).

Let’s take a step back in time and learn a little bit about the (delicious) history of the wedding cake.

Illustration of an elaborate victorian wedding reception

A Brief History of Wedding Cake

So where does this whole wedding cake business start? All signs point back to Ancient Rome, where grooms would traditionally break a barley cake over the bride’s head (perhaps a pre-cursor to cake smashing) to bring good luck to the couple.

In Medieval England, couples would kiss over a large stack of sweet breads. If the kiss occurred without knocking over the big stack of cakes, then the couple was said to have a happy and prosperous life (and really great balance, apparently). The cakes themselves didn’t sound too appetizing by modern standards, and were made with ingredients like lamb testicles, oysters, minced meats, and mutton—a far cry from today’s sugary sweet standard white wedding cake. Guests would take home pieces of these wedding cakes and tuck them under their pillows for luck.

However, things sweetened up a bit when sugar became ubiquitous in 16th century English life. It was then that the traditional white cake with icing was born. Really refined grains of sugar were white in color and also came at a pretty hefty price—and a white cake with white icing at a wedding was a surefire way to show your wedding guests that you had some wealth and status. White cake with white icing also symbolized a bride’s virginity and purity.

Once sugar was introduced into the modern diet and the sugar refinement process was made easier, cakes started becoming increasingly elaborate during the Victorian period. The cake at Queen Victoria’s and Prince Albert’s wedding in 1840 was decorated with “royal icing”, or white icing, and measured out to be a whopping nine feet in circumference. And later on in 1947, the cake at Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s wedding weighed an astounding 500 pounds.

Wedding cakes really remained fairly fixed from the Victorian period until about the mid-1980s, when you started to see softer icing with sugar-paste flowers replace the traditional hard royal icing piping to decorate the cake. Today, wedding cakes are varied in style, size, and ingredients.

Medieval people clinking glasses at a celebration

Wedding Cake Supersitions

Just like the superstitions of carrying a bride across a threshold or not seeing the bride before the wedding, the wedding cake has its own fair share of strange traditions.

In Yorkshire, England during the Medieval period, wedding guests shared what was called “bride pie,” and it was considered extremely rude not to take a piece. Inside the pie was a ring, and whichever lucky girl who found it in her slice was to be the next one to marry (or at least be saved a choking hazard).

Brides and grooms during the time were also offered a cake upon entering their new house. After eating a small piece of the cake, the bride would toss the rest over her head to ensure that she and her new husband would have everything they needed. The groom would then toss the plate over his head, and if it broke the new couple was guaranteed happiness (and that they also needed to clean up their new kitchen floor).

Another strange tradition during that time was to stash a cake for the bride at an inn nearby and cut it into small pieces (but not all the way through). The groom would then place a napkin over the bride’s head and break the cake over her, leaving the guests to chase after the pieces, which would bring good fortune to the couple—and hopefully a clean towel for the bride.

Naked wedding cakes on tree stumps at an outdoor wedding reception

The Modern Wedding Cake

Gone are the days when a wedding cake has to be white—or even has to be cake. Many couples are ditching tradition and serving cupcakes, pie, or different flavors of cake instead of the old fashioned white cake. As weddings become increasingly personalized so do the flavor and varieties of wedding desserts (which we’re not complaining about).

Although the wedding cake may not have all of the symbolism and folklore that it used to have in past centuries, it remains nearly everyone’s favorite part of the reception—especially when served with a flute of champagne.

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