Chaucer mentioned gingebreed (gingerbread) in his writings in 1386, however, he gave no description of the product. As with early versions, his experience was probably with that made from honey, spices, and breadcrumbs or ground almonds.
In Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Books, Gyngerbrede was made: Take a quart of hony, & sethe it, & skeme it clene; take Safroun, pouder Pepir, & throw ther-on; take gratyd Brede, & make it so chargeaunt that it wol be y-leched; then take pouder Canelle, & straw ther-on y-now; then make yt square, lyke as thou wolt leche it; take when thou lechyst hyt, an caste Box leaves a-bouyn, y-stkyd ther-on, on clowys. And if thou wolt haue it Red, coloure it with Saunderys y-now. Austin, Thomas. Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery Books. Harleian MS. 279…and Harl. MS. 4016. London, 1888. Early English Text Society, Oxford Series, No. 91.
What did we just read? Old English aside, this basically translates into bread crumbs combined with honey, spices, and saffron. Such products were more candy-like and less gingerbread-like than we know today.
In old London, gingerbread was sold in stalls at all times of year. It varied in form from that of a cake to bars which were sliced, or it was made into nuts and sold by the dozen. Charles Carter’s version  in “long rolls or cakes” was copied later by Elizabeth Moxon in 1764.
Designs were sometimes stamped into the cakes as evidenced in John Murrell’s version penned in 1621. “Roule it in round cakes and print it with your moulds…”.
While George Read’s book contained one receipt in 1854 in which “nuts” were made by encasing an almond in gingerbread dough, the term generally meant simply gingerbread baked into small balls [Frederick Nutt, 1790] or rolled and cut into rounds. Eliza Leslie instructed the cook to flour the hands and roll small pieces of dough into “little round balls”.
The selling of gingerbread in markets and stalls was a lucrative profession in former times. “In the days of the early Georges, for instance, gingerbread was hawked about by a smartly dressed lad…but older folk were also employed.”
As will be shown later, George Read agreed with men selling gingerbread, but there were accounts of women who worked as gingerbread sellers. By 1614, Ben Johnson had included the character of a gingerbread seller into his play, Bartholomew Fair.
“Joan Trash, the gingerbread woman, crying her ‘Fine gilt gingerbread!’ The last refers to the custom of painting the top in fine gold leaf, a custom that, “we do not see” by the 1870’s. – Chatterbox. 1876. Boston.
Although it had been the custom for decades by then, in 1822 cooks were cautioned that, “…the use of this poisonous material [gilt] for gilding gingerbread and sweetmeats cannot be too much reprobated”. – One Thousand Experiments in Chemistry.
Having established the making and selling of gingerbread as a profession in Britain and America, let’s note that the same was true of France and Germany. In 1878, when the treat had fallen slightly out of favor in the markets of London, it was noted to still be as popular as ever in those two countries. – The Lancet. Aug. 31, 1878.
The gingerbread seller has been illustrated in books and magazines from London and Paris attesting to the frequency with which the treats were sold.
Some dealers took the gingerbread fresh and hot from the oven, wrapped it in heavy cloths, and took to the streets to sell it while yet warm from the oven.
In 1854, George Read claimed the origins of gingerbread were Asiatic or Eastern because, “…the natives of these countries are extremely fond of sweetmeats and spiced bread”. An appreciation of a delicacy doesn’t necessarily mean that culture was the first to make and enjoy it, and he did proclaim it to be universal though, carried to excess”, in Holland.
Those who wished to ingratiate himself with a family often depends in no small degree, on the quality and quantity of presents which he makes in gingerbread.
The many references Read made to the making of gingerbread inferred it was made by men. “The receipt for it descended from father to son as an heirloom and was kept secret outside the family.”
The British also appreciated gingerbread and Read claimed lovers often made presents of gingerbread nuts and “fairings” to their mistresses and children would spend their last penny on gingerbread made into the shape of a, “horse, cock in breeches, or old man and woman”. Of the three, the only shape that became universal was the man and woman.
There is a myth, or let’s say at least, that I found no first hand documentation to back up the story, that the first gingerbread men were made for Queen Elizabeth I.
Shakespeare penned a line about spending one’s last penny in the world to buy gingerbread in Love’s Labour Lost. Wouldn’t it be rather romantic to think of him presenting his wife, Anne Hathaway, with a gift of gilt gingerbread?
The receipts Read gave were intended for commercial use although one he described as, “an old receipt”, [old in 1854] might be a quantity practical enough for family use as it kept rather well. He acknowledged that it was not fermented with yeast, as was bread, and the means of “gasifying” it was of comparatively recent origin.
Take refined sugar, 6 lbs.; damask rise water, 3 pints, or enough to make a syrup of it, of the same consistence or thickness of treacle, which keep for use. Take ginger, coriander seed, caraway seed, of each, in fine powder, 2 oz.; fennel seed, aniseed, each, in fine powder, 1 oz.; cloves, in fine powder, 1 oz.; mix them well together in a mortar which reserve. Take of the former syrup 1 quart, of the reserved powder 2 oz. (more or less, as you would have it to taste of the spice); fine wheat flour, 3 quarts, or so much as may make it up into a pretty stiff paste; roll it out into thin square cakes and so bake it. This exceeds all other preparations of gingerbread whatsoever.
The color of the gingerbread ranged from golden brown to dark brown depending on the quality of treacle or syrup used in making it up.
When gingerbread first contained a substance to make it lighter and therefore softer, the transformation was the result of the addition of pearl ash or potash. Keeping the dough some time before baking it gave the leavening agent time to act with the treacle producing carbonic gas. It was a slow process. Carbonate of magnesia and soda were also in time, and produced a product lighter and spongier than that made with potash. – Read, George. The Complete Biscuit and Gingerbread Baker’s Assistant. 1854. London.
The following should invoke interest among my readers since Christmas is looming on the horizon.
GINGERBREAD CAKES – Richard Briggs. 1788. [The English Art of Cookery] Rub one pound of butter into three pounds of flour, one pound of sugar, two ounces of ginger beat fine and sifted, and a large nutmeg grated; then take a pound of treacle, a gill of cream, make them warm together, and make up the bread stiff, roll it out, and make it into thin cakes, or cut it round with a tea-cup or glas, or make it into nuts, or any form or shape you please, put it on oven-plates, and bake it in a slack oven.
In 1867, a receipt was published for a pound cake flavored as gingerbread which was probably lighter than anything in Read’s repertoire.
Pound Cake Gingerbread. One cup of sugar, two cups of molasses, one of butter, one cup of buttermilk or sour cream, four cups of flour, four eggs, a tablespoonful of ground ginger and one of cloves, a teaspoonful of soda dissolved in hot water, and half a teaspoonful of cream of tartar poured in last of all.
There were no further directions given with the recipe for how it was made. – Barringer, Maria Massey. Dixie Cookery; or, How I Managed my Table for Twelve Years.
Barringer’s Light Gingerbread instructed the cook to mix the soda into the molasses and then mix with the remaining ingredients. I would suggest doing so with the pound cake. Mix the cream of tartar and spices with the flour. Cream the butter with the sugar and eggs. Mix the soda with the molasses, and add it to the dry ingredients with the buttermilk or sour cream. The soda could also be mixed with the buttermilk instead of the molasses as the maker prefers.