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.

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.
History of Molds: 20th and 21st Centuries

Some "pockets of picture cookie traditions" have survived into the 20th and 21st centuries.
The art of carving gingerbread molds has all but disappeared and the antique molds are hung as decorative accents, rarely to be used.  Whereas the professionally carved molds worked well for professionals of the bakers' guild, the poorer quality raw wood molds never were as successful in the hands of the housewife who preferrred her metal cutters.  Wooden cake and cookie boards are now largely souvenir collectibles and decorating pieces.  This is especially true in Europe due to the human tendency to hold the familiar in contempt.  Ironically, Americans are more likely to shape molded, European-style picture cookies than today's Europeans!  There is some hope in that European museums with extensive mold collection are now conducting classes on making molded cookies - in an effort to see the art preserved in European homes.

Today's cookie cutters, stamps and molds follow all the fads of the past except putting stock in the magical powers of the cookies.  The appeal of attractively shaped cookies is still good marketing strategy in cereals, cookies, animal crackers, chocolates, pancakes, etc.  Such mass produced items are hardly edible art which is what best describes a springerle, speculaas, shortbread or gingerbread cookie shaped by a one-of-a-kind wooden mold available from HOBI Picture Cookie Molds!
Credits and Special Thanks to the LAXA Family;  House-on-the-Hill; Harvard University Art Museum Publication, The Edible Mass Medium - Traditional Cookie Molds of the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries  by Dr. Anneliese Harding; Cake prints, carved molds, and the tradition of decorative confections: The Adomeit Mold Collection, Antiques Magazine, Summer 2010, Pp. 158-167.
Below, LIONMAN,  Austrian, c.1650-1700
More often and more directly than in any other popular medium, the cookie molds alluded to human fertility and virility.  The lionman, holding an apple, is a rather blunt symbol of virility.  Images of this kind are very old and have their origin in pagan mythology
Below, Hussar, late 18th century, Austrian or German  This mold is a typical example of the later phase of the gingerbread style .  The name
 of the baker
"F. Oser" is carved into the base of the design;, providing a quite obvious advertisement for his products.

In 1926
Sanislaw Dabrowski published the first monograph dealing with carved molds as a distinct art form.
History of Molds: 18th and 19th Centuries
During the 18th Century, springerle cookies reached their height of popularity.   people recognized and associated with the new and clever cookie images -  which more and more reflected the common people, their trades, domestic and street scenes, well known proverbs and theatre themes.  Picture cakes were one of  the main attractions of fairs and festivals - the cookies represented a lively and subtle form of communication, often using a traditional symbolic code to convey the message.  These "cookie messages" were shaped by the baker's molds - more importantly, the common man was being shaped (influenced) by the MASS MEDIA OF COOKIES. 
An example of a mold used for political propaganda (other than the 4000 gingerbread cookies in the image of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III): In 1800, an unknown carver added a Napoleonic hat  to a billygoat rider/monkey companion mold symbolic of evil, carved five years earlier.  Thus Napoleon was ridiculed  - by the gingerbread baker - throughout the Austrian and Germany lands  that he had invaded that summer!  

Cookie molds offer a rare glimpse into the popular culture of the time!

Like the greeting cards and cartoons of our century, "cookie messages" announced births and weddings; commemorated important holidays; and reflected local news, characters, politics, proverbs, jokes, folk tales and - of course - love messages.  These molds are literally "preserved pictures of centuries of living."  Deeply religious themes appeared side by side with a cheerfully direct eroticism.  During the Baroque Period of the 18th and 19th Centuries, the erotic theme frankness (common in picture cookies) and deeply religious cookie motifs  appear to have co-existed without conflict.

The mass production of bakery cookies for the common man required carvers to include more images in one piece of wood used as a mold for springerle, marzipan and tragacanth.  This push for mass production soon included more efficient work procedure in bakeries and a German baker discovered that a cutting insert of tin would greatly speed production (and profits) - and thus was born metal cookie cutters to be used as the baker's secret tool.

The wooden molds which had been rather unique one-of-a-kind treasures and the secret recipes of the guild members rapidly became history as the masses obtained the recipes, molds, and knowledge to shape picture cookies in the 19th and 20th centuries. The artistic quality of carved molds declined - now they were carved by bakers, or worse, by amateurs.  Most geographical areas no longer had professional form cutters.  The molds being carved lacked imagination, stressed strict symmetry and ornamention.  Old and fashionable (fad) designs were poorly copied many times over.  Metal cutters began taking the place of wooden molds and the attaching of colorful printed pictures and colorful sugar frosting outlines became the fad.  Sadly, the "Glory of Picture Gingerbread" had ended by 1900!
In 1956
Janina Kruszelnicka, a Polish art historian, mounted a major
exhibition of carved molds in the District Museum of Torun, Poland.  This included many examples salvaged from the old Prussian bakeries abandoned when the Russian army evicted the German inhabitants from the region in 1945. This is one of the finest collections of its kind in Europe, so it is a "must see" for anyone who collects carved molds.
The Ruth Adomeit Mold Collection housed at the Shelburne Museum in VT consists of 700 pieces. Springerle molds are well represented in this collection.
The Difficulty of Researching the Origin and Age of Antique Molds
None of the standard reference books on European carved molds have been translated into English.  This makes it difficult for many of us to research items such as antique springerle boards.  The #1 reference book on such molds is Model (Molds) by Austrian ehinographer Edith Horandner.  This work surveys many of the regional European carving traditions and highlights the locations of the best collections - including the Museum der Brotkultur (German Bread Museum) in Ulm, Germany.  That collection is rich in springerle molds.
The Wilsons highly value three reference volumes on antique molds: 
(1) Edith Horandner's richly illustrate MODEL Geschnitzte Formen fur Lebkuchen, Spekulatisus und Springerle, 220 pages, Callwey Verlag, Munchen 1982; 
(2) J. J. Schilstra's richly illustrated Prenten in hout - Speculaas, taai- en dragantvormen in Nederland, 330 pages, Lochem, 10985; and (3) Paul E Kindig's illustrated Butter Prints and Molds, 248 pages, Schiffer Publishing, 1986.
11/14/2010: "I am so grateful to you for bringing back the old world gingerbread tradition with your carved molds. My family is from Bohemia and I read that gingerbread has a recorded history in Bohemia going back to the 14th C. 
- and that the most famous is from Pardubice, near where my Babi (Grandma) lived.  I am thrilled and honored to be carrying on the baking tradition of my ancestors... " Judy L., Iowa
HISTORY OF THE USE OF COOKIE MOLDS
This page was last updated: July 7, 2014
HOBI Cookie Molds
History of the Use of Cookie Molds