A Brief History of Cookies and Cookie Decorating | History
From the outside, the David Parr House looks like a typical terraced building in Cambridge, England. Inside, however, the walls of this seemingly unassuming home are adorned with friezes, stained glass, gilded molding and vibrant designs, all crafted by decorative artist David Parr between 1886 and 1927. A representative of the Arts and Crafts movement, which prized handcraftsmanship above mass-produced objects, Parr’s house-turned-heritage site opened to the public in 2019. Among its visitors was Ella Hawkins, a design historian and author with a unique hobby: creating biscuit art.
Inspired by her trip to the home, which she describes as “without question, the most beautiful house I’ve ever seen,” Hawkins, 29, decided to decorate a batch of biscuits (better known to Americans as cookies) with Parr’s designs. Flavored with orange, cardamon and vanilla, the rectangular treats served as a canvas for her petite paintings of twisting vines, flowers and Gothic script. She shared snapshots of the finished cookies on social media, where they elicited enthusiasm for both her work and Parr’s.
“He’s this amazing Arts and Crafts working-class guy who went into stately homes and actually painted the walls with incredible designs,” Hawkins says. Artists like Parr have largely been “lost to history, because they’ve not been documented in as much detail as the people who owned the houses.” But now, because Parr applied the same decorative techniques to his own humble abode, he’s starting to gain recognition.
Reflecting on the response to her post, Hawkins adds, “The comments that came in were like, ‘I had never heard of this. Now I will go.’ Or ‘I had no idea this was in Cambridge.’ It’s a way of signposting something, celebrating it, saying, ‘Aren’t these beautiful? Go see them.’”
A scholar of Early Modern English at the University of Birmingham, Hawkins has always loved baking. “I’ve baked for as long as I can remember,” she says. “Everyone knows someone who bakes, and I’m that person.” But she only took this hobby to the next level during Britain’s Covid-19 lockdown, when she decided to send a set of cookies featuring intricate floral designs to her mother. Heartened by her mother’s reaction to the edible artwork, Hawkins started a new project based on textiles by 19th-century designer William Morris.
“I looked around my office and saw a calendar from the Victoria and Albert Museum of the patterns and thought, ‘Why not?’” she recalls. “It was the first time I realized I could create biscuits inspired by anything I wanted.”
Hawkins posted a photograph of the nature-inspired designs on Twitter on February 23, 2021. “If the academia plan doesn’t work out, I’m taking my material culture interests to the cookie industry,” she captioned the image. After going about her day, she returned to her computer to find the post had garnered thousands of likes. (Currently, it boasts just under 200,000 likes.)
In the two years since her viral tweet, Hawkins has developed a sizable social media following. Fans flock to her accounts for her stunning cookie designs, which emulate book covers, scalloped-edged Tiffany lamps, pottery shards, mosaic tiles, medieval manuscripts, Elizabethan fabrics and more. To make this “biscuit art,” Hawkins covers a gingerbread or sugar cookie-like base with royal icing. She uses food coloring gel and vodka (which acts as a thinning agent) to paint patterns onto the cookies, then adds raised elements by piping on royal icing. Most of her designs are rectangular or square, but she’s experimented with other shapes, too, creating an oval portrait of Jane Austen, a black-and-white fox head and randomly broken cookies patterned after Roman pottery fragments.
For Hawkins, decorating cookies offers a chance to combine her love of design with her love of history and her love of baking. “I’m a very visual person,” she says. “I think it was something to do with how different visual things like colors, shapes and styles come together to create something as a whole that just clicks with my brain. … I realized I can just look at things and turn them into biscuits, and I just sort of carried on experimenting to see what I could do with that.”
Hawkins’ creations are part of a lengthy tradition of baking and decorating cookies. Known by different names around the world, the sweet little treats run the gamut from filled cookies like Hamantaschen to cut-out cookies like gingerbread to commercially produced brands like Oreos. The word “cookie” was first used in 18th-century Scotland, but variations of the dessert date back hundreds of years.
Sharon Hudgins, an author and editor who’s written about cookies for The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, among other publications, suggests that “picture cookies” (specially shaped, decorated or stamped treats) now popular in Northern Europe trace their roots to the Julfest, a wintertime celebration held by pre-Christian Germanic tribes. Participants who were unable to spare an animal for the traditional Julfest sacrifice instead fashioned dough into animal shapes.
“These dough effigies have been found in archaeological digs,” Hudgins says. “People ate them just as they would the animal sacrifice. [It] was a continuation of the ritual without having the economic loss of a real farm animal.”
Another modern cookie predecessor originated in Persia, where the Sassanids enjoyed khushkananaj, a baked good made by kneading dough with sesame oil and filling it with sugar and almonds, and kulaija, a similar treat made with a mold, as early as the seventh century. At the time, sugar—a central component of many cookies—was a prized commodity introduced to the region by traders from India. Sugar wouldn’t arrive in Europe until the tenth century, when soldiers returning from the Crusades brought it back to their home countries.
Given sugar’s rarity in the Western world at the time, most early European cookies were unsweetened or flavored with alternative ingredients like honey. It was only during the Middle Ages that these treats were “eaten as a form of pleasure and celebration” rather than for the “largely utilitarian purpose” of alleviating hunger, writes Anastasia Edwards in Biscuits and Cookies: A Global History.
Wafers, for instance, evolved from unleavened matzo bread eaten by Jews during Passover. Originally unsweetened, these thin, crisp sheets were stamped with religious imagery and eaten during Christian communion. Medieval clergy used cast-iron tongs imprinted with patterns to hold the dough in place and quickly bake it over a fire. In 1270, a wafer-making guild was established in Paris to help meet the clerical need for wafers; guild members soon branched out, creating secular forms of the cookie that became popular accompaniments to hippocras, a sweet wine served at the end of meals.
It was in Germany, though, that sweet cookies truly came into their own. During the 16th century, spices flowed from Asia to Nuremberg, a crossroad of key European trade routes. Cooks in the German city combined sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and other spices with locally produced honey to create lebkuchen, spiced honey cakes comparable to gingerbread. Around this same time, wooden, metal and ceramic cookie molds came into wider use, enabling bakers to imprint elaborate designs on anise-flavored springerle and other picture cookies. Initially decorated with religious images, these molds became increasingly secular in the 17th century, with artisans hand-carving depictions of knights, coats of arms, and activities like ice skating and hunting, among other scenes.
“The embossed designs made by molds”—including wafer irons—“were the first forms of actual decorating beyond just shaping a cookie into a form,” says Hudgins.
As demand for sugar spiked in the 17th century and onward, European nations established sugar plantations in Brazil and the Caribbean, enslaving millions in their quest to produce so-called white gold. By the early 19th century, sugar was widely available and relatively cheap in both Europe and North America.
The growing middle class could now afford to use sugar as a sweetener instead of honey. It was a handy, versatile ingredient and could be used to make glazes that helped keep cakes moist longer. These glazes soon morphed into frosting, a concoction that became especially popular after it was used to decorate Queen Victoria’s 300-pound wedding cake in 1840. In addition to icing, cooks decorated their cakes and cookies with dried or candied fruits, nuts, and colored sugar.
Mass-produced metal cookie cutters similarly gained traction in the mid-19th century. Shaped like people, flowers, animals, hearts or holiday symbols, they presented a playful addition to the dessert menu and were less expensive than handcrafted wooden molds.
“With cookie cutters, people could now make a large amount of something, such as heart-shaped cookies, and [they] wouldn’t have to do a lot of decorating because the shape of the cookie is the decoration itself,” says Hudgins.
As sugar became a pantry staple and ovens a fixture in kitchens, home cooks gained the ability to economically turn out a variety of sweets and desserts, including cookies. At the same time, advances in technology gave rise to mass-produced treats, with companies like Huntley & Palmers and Nabisco (which started making animal crackers in 1902) presenting their products as symbols of home and childhood innocence. Writing in Biscuits and Cookies, Edwards notes that the cookie was meant to be seen as “a quiet antithesis to the industrialization of modern life.”
By the 1940s, baking and decorating cut-out cookies had become a popular holiday tradition in the United States. Entrepreneurs like Nettie Williams McBirney, better known as Aunt Chick, crafted Christmas-themed plastic cookie cutters that now sell as vintage collectibles. The American public’s penchant for baking and decorating was further encouraged by the 1963 publication of Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, which featured more than 450 recipes for treats ranging from satin-glazed date drops to chocolate refrigerator cookies.
“In the 1970s and ’80s, making decorated cookies started coming back into fashion,” says Hudgins. “More women had gone into the workforce in the ’60s and ’70s, so in some families there was less cookie baking at Christmas time. Yet there was also an interest by the hippie generation to return to their roots with activities such as home baking.”
More recently, the internet has transformed the world of cookies, offering bakers a place to connect with each other and share recipes and inspiration alike. New technology has also helped cooks put a modern twist on their baked goods.
Small projectors allow artists like Hawkins to cast their designs onto edible canvases. Airbrushing yields dramatic effects, as do brush sets, stencils, piping bags and food coloring markers. And 3D printers allow decorators to create custom cookie cutters and molds.
“Cookie decorating never gets stale,” says Karen Summers, co-founder of CookieCon, the world’s largest gathering of cookie decorators. “There’s always some new technique, some new tool, some new thing [bakers are] implementing. Every time that I think I’ve seen it all, someone will pull out something new, and I think, ‘Whoa! How’d they do that?’”
Hawkins suggests that decorated cookies’ magic stems in part from their ephemerality.
“I think if they weren’t biscuits, if they were paintings or collages, they wouldn’t have the same reaction,” she says. “Part of what they are is temporary. There’s something really weird about it that’s provocative. I’m happy I have photos of them. They’re preserved in that sense. If I had just a drawer full of them, I don’t know what I’d do with them.”
“There is some level where people want it to last forever, but I think a lot of people just find it a fun challenge to create this masterpiece that is very, very temporary,” she says. “A common theme is to just eat the cookie.”
“I’ll make another one,” says Summers.