History of Molds: 3000 BC to Middle Ages
Simple modeling forms date from 3000 B. C. and attained artistic perfection in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece. The roots of molding picture cookies can be traced back to the ancent arts of pottery, woodcarving, and metal casting. These Bronze Age arts gave mankind his earliest experience with molds for imprinting, decorating, and casting. The finest pottery of the ancient world was crafted in Babylonia - even prior to 3000 B.C. Engraved stamps and cylinder seals of Babylonia had decorative designs or scenes of everyday life and were used to seal documents in freshy made clay containers. The cylinderical seal was rolled over clay to impress it much as springerle rolling pins would - some 400 years later - be used to impress edible dough. The oldest evidence of sweet cakes (cookies) was found in the Indus Valley dating back to 2500 B.C.
It is said that Greek slaves taught baking to the Romans. Stamped Greek coins of 400 B. C. convince us that intaglio carving (negative carving to provide a positive casting or impression) and engraving had already developed to a fine art with those casting precious metals. By 200 B.C., honey cakes were baked as well as breads. In Ancient Rome, clay plaques were in abundance and used to impress negative images into honey cakes, medications, wax, clay, etc. Stone molds were typically used for metal castings. Clay and wooden molds were also in use. The detailed carvings of wooden molds well served those who shaped wax and dough for the church and royalty. Since beeswax is a natural product of honey production, many bakers were also wax chandlers. Some wax molds were cast in pairs to form a fully modeled figure. Such molded cakes were of stiff dough or of a sweet honey marzipan paste - and the motifs were typically religious or ritualistic.
Supposedly, the Germanic tribes pressed out picture cakes during the annual celebration of Winter Solstice to offer as sacrificial gifts to Wotan, King of Nordic gods. The horse was the sacred animal of these tribes and the word "springerle" is said by some to be derived from a German dialect meaning "small jumping horse." More likely, the word simply refers to the cake (cookie) rising when baked - as from the German verb springen.
The Roman Empire's influence and trade with the Far East were to disperse many art and craft techniques and change the molded picture cakes as well. The Far East was the source for ginger, sugar, and other spices. The Romans brought honey to England in the first or second century and then England was without honey until the 11th Century (wiser Romans would have brought beehives instead of honey!). The later incorporation of December 25th into the Christian calendar of celebrations continued the picture cake tradtion - with Christian motifs replacing the pagan designs. Wax for candles and unleavened bread may also have been impressed where monastaries could find local talent available. The most artistic bakers of Old Europe were those of Italy, Germany, Prussia, Bohemia, Czechoslovkia, and France. Springerle cookies had their origins in southern Germany in the 14th Century.
During the Middle Ages, Greco-Roman motifs blended with Germanic pagan mythology in the use of picture cakes to celebrate pagan riturals. Monastery bakeries, and support from the Royalty, soon became the primary influence upon town bakers - religious designs dominated this period.
History of Molds: 15th to 17th Centuries
During the 15th and 16th Centuries, honey cake recipes varied from region to region. Cities such as Nuremburg, were soon associated with their own special variety of honey cakes and picture cookies. Artisans capable of carving complex woodcuts and engravings abounded in central Europe. They had the knowledge of tools and woods to accomplish exquisitely detailed carvings (including molds). Such artisans were often enlisted by royals - who needed political propaganda to support their ego - to design and carve gingerbread cake molds. Thus royalty supported the arts, including making gingerbread and carving elaborate molds. Kings often imported bakers from far away parts of Europe.
Gingerbread bakers, first mentioned in 1335, had their own guild by 1415. Instead of yeast dough, the gingerbread bakers used a very special rye dough with honey and spices. Such professional gingerbread bakers were so esteemed that they were provided separate sleeping quarters away from the lowly bakers of ordinary bread. In 1419, Prague had 18 gingerbread bakers. Nuremberg had the largest supply of honey in Europe and its supply of spices arrived via Italy and the Far East. By the mid-1400s, Bohemia (this area and Germany had the strongest gingerbread tradition in Europe) had hundreds of gingerbread bakers and the competition may have helped spread the bakers thoughout Europe. The inheritance papers of the wealthiest gingerbread baker in Prague listed 500 carved molds! Most gingerbread bakers in Bohemia conducted their business in the vicinity of castles and catered to a wealthy clientele. Most European towns had their own family, if not guild, of gingerbread bakers.
Also by the mid-1400s, Venice was receiving large shipments of sugar form the Far East and known as a center for candy making.
In 1487, Emperor Frederick III attempted to increase his public approval rating
by having 4000 gingerbread cookies of his image made to give to the children of his domain.
The woodcarvers of Europe established their own guild in the 15th Century. Many of the woodcarvers were working exclusively for gingerbread bakers. In the ranks of the gingerbread bakers were many who carved their own molds and taught all their techniques to their sons. Under the German apprentice system, it was necessary to be able to carve moldew in order to receive the privilege of master gingerbread baker. The woodcarver guild bloomed in the 16th and 17th centuries and most of the carvings of that period are now in European museums of large private collections.
Designs had great symbolic significance and consuming the correct type of cameo-like picture cookie was thought to be capable of changing fertility, reading ability, or sexual powers. Some examples include the following: dog: fidelity; pig: luck; swaddled baby: childbringer; hare: fertility; cockrider: virility; lionman: virility (shown at right); heart: love.
During the 17th Century, professional form-cutters and model makers were free-lance artists who preferred to carve fine grained fruitwoods (cherry and pear woods). As the castings were edible, the wood had to be carefully chosen. It had to be without odor or toxins, capable of withstanding changes in temperature and humidity, tolerant of some washing and cleaning after use, and most importantly - the wood had to hold the intricate lines of the carvers's cutting tools. The demand for cake molds had greatly increased due to the gingerbread bakers having their own trade guild. Those form-cutter artisans who produced cake molds also fashioned molds for goldsmiths and wax chandlers. Typically, the form-cutters' challenge was to produce rich images in shallow relief. The open and irregular shape of the molds challenged both the form-cutters and the bakers. Bakers learning the craft of cookie molding were also taught woodcarving so they could carve molds.
Cookie Molds reached their glory during the early part of the 17th Century!
Springerle molds were allotted precious space in the packs and trunks of women immigrating to America; it was space wisely allottted, as the traditional Christmas cookies helped the homesick newcomers feel that America was home. The molds were highly prized as heirlooms, and were handed down through the centuries - from mother to daughter as a treasured part of her dowery, or as the jealously guarded repetoire of the Gingerbread Bakers' Guild. The first springerle recipe appeared in a 1688 cookbook. The "Lebzelterstil" or "gingerbread style" remained popular from 1600 until the 1800s when mass production began taking its toll. This stylized art gave great detail to fabrics and often had the distortion typical of children's drawings. These early artisans set the pattern for all the future: a horse was always prancing, a rider always turned toward the beholder, the flowers were those favorites of rose, tulips and zinnas.